When the Nebraska-born, Texas-bred singer/songwriter Elliott Smith died in 2003 at age 34, he left behind a rich legacy of strikingly original, darkly evocative songwriting. Each of his albums, right up to the posthumously released From A Basement On The Hill, exhibited progressive development as a composer and lyricist, evoking comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel, Jackson Browne, Nick Drake and even the Beatles. Smith's skewed, mildly dissonant yet achingly poignant sense of melody turns out to be perfect for the piano, especially in Christopher O' Riley's intuitive, sympathetic yet fiery hands. That he was able to capture the manic highs and subterranean lows of Smith's emotional landscape, sans lyrics, is nothing short of miraculous. O'Riley's touch is moody but also remarkably unsentimental; he is well aware that deep truths should be allowed to speak for themselves. Ultimately, the pieces on this album, drawn from various periods in Smith's output, are presented as tone-poems in miniature. His music is revealed as assertively American, infectious yet elusive, with inchoate quotes from Heartland folklore dancing somewhere just beyond the listener's memory.
Christopher O'Riley has gained recent renown for his two albums of piano adaptations of Radiohead songs, Hold Me To This
and True Love Waits
. He successfully found the inner classical composer in Thom Yorke, and turned the art-rock group's ambitious songs into symphonic excursions for solo piano. O'Riley brings the same technique to bear on Elliott Smith, a singer-songwriter of considerably more fragile design but who still reveled in idiosyncratic song structures and dense arrangements. Like the Radiohead albums, this isn't Smith turned into Muzak. O'Riley probes the dark underside of Smith's lyrics instrumentally, with shrouded chord clusters and tonal washes. He'll often go toward the angular more than the melodic, fracturing songs sideways. The approach is challenging and sometimes oppressive. It's a relief when he emerges from a storm of overtones to an almost baroque minuet on "Coast to Coast." So goes it for most of Home to Oblivion
, as O'Riley makes Smith's music his own. "Independence Day" comes off almost as a jaunty boogie-woogie in O'Riley's hands, while "Cupid's Tricks" is a delirious swirl with piano lines tumbling over each other against aggressive left-hand chord stabs. O'Riley finds echoes of Chopin, Mozart, and Satie in Smith's ruminations. I confess that I've not plumbed the depths of the Elliott Smith oeuvre as Christopher O'Riley has so lovingly and obsessively done. But I suspect that fans of the singer-songwriter might find this CD almost worth it just for the pianist's liner-notes meditation on the life and music of Smith, who committed suicide in 2003. --John Diliberto