When Elliott Smith (allegedly) fatally stabbed himself in the heart nearly a year ago, anyone who hung onto his every wistful word felt the puncture. Fans, who have started to recover due largely to the posthumous release of From a Basement on a Hill, were told they’d find solace in Smith-emulators like Ambulance Ltd. and Earlimart. The latter is more accurate, and Treble and Tremble makes it clear why.
To all concerned, Los Angeles-based Earlimart has been making music for almost eight years. They’ve released three albums to minimal applause, but their fourth, Treble and Tremble, is drumming up all sorts of attention for a few important reasons: a) this band sounds awfully a lot like Elliott Smith, b) this album was written/recorded as a tribute to Elliott Smith and c) it was produced by Jim Fairchild of Grandaddy, a serious supporter to, you guessed it — Elliott Smith. Couple this with the fact that band leader Aaron Espinoza was a neighbor and close friend of the late singer and you’ve got a pretty intense devotional to one of indie-rock’s gifted songwriters.
Earlimart and Fairchild do such a good job of channeling the ghost of their lost friend that it sometimes borders on mere mimicry. The short, whispered opener “Hold On, Slow Down” recalls Smith’s own dreary “Waltz #1,” but their messages are poles apart. Whereas Smith is scornful in his refrain — “I wish I’d never seen your face” — Espinoza is mournful — “Will I see your face again?/ Will I see you again?/ Will you be smiling then?” Investigations like this could pose a lot of problems for people who just want to leave Elliott in the grave. But for those still searching for a shoulder to cry on, Earlimart provides a warm, candlelight atmosphere.
Aside from the obvious comparisons to Smith, Earlimart’s music could easily stand on it’s own without all that love-letter stuff. Fairchild is a great help; his production finger prints are discovered on “1st Instant, Last Report,” where the perfect mix of acoustic/electric guitars, piano and strings is augmented by Espionza’s distorted vocals — a trick that Grandaddy has perfected to a tee. It’s moments like these where Earlimart shines. And the album has a perfect balance of amorphous softer ballads like “A Bell and a Whistle” and supercharged Built To Spill rockers like “Sounds” and “The Hidden Track.” But if you’re uncomfortable with wallowing and commiserating in exhausted guitars with slightly fuzzed-out vocals, steer clear of Treble & Tremble — it runs the gamut as far as sad music about a sad musician.
It’s debatable whether Earlimart will have the wherewithal to surpass their musings with conceptual art, especially when it dealt with the arduous task of saying goodbye to a friend. Elliott Smith fans who hear this will have mixed reactions, nothing cut or dry, love or hate, black or white, but maybe something more abstract — like either/or.