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NEW YORK (Billboard) - Releasing "new" music after an artist has died is always a tricky proposition, especially when that artist has a fiercely protective fan base.
Olympia, Wash.-based indie label Kill Rock Stars will try to satisfy devotees of the late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith with the May 8 release of "New Moon," a two-disc set of primarily unreleased material. It comprises tracks recorded during the three years Smith was with the label, from 1994 to 1997.
Smith was found dead in his Los Angeles home in October 2003. Although widely reported in the media as a suicide, the coroner never established a cause of death, and the case remains under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department.
Larry Crane, a personal friend of Smith's and the engineer who mixed most of "New Moon," admits "there's a real careful line to ride" with a release of this nature, but adds that so much depends on intent and timing. "If you put this out five months after he passed, that would be disgusting, but it's been more than three years now, and it feels like the right time."
Crane, whose Jackpot Studios Smith often used for recording, is also the archivist for Smith's estate. He was given the task of tracking down all the tapes Smith made during the Kill Rock Stars period, bringing them back to Portland, Ore., and listening to everything from start to finish.
"I seriously believe," he says, "that if Elliott was still around, this sort of project would have come along at this point, because there's quite a bit of great material from this period."
Kill Rock Stars VP Maggie Vail says the project arose from an initial plan to release an expanded edition of Smith's second and final album for Kill Rock Stars, "Either/Or." It was Smith's most successful release to that point and remains the label's biggest seller. The album has sold 306,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
"But the more we started digging in, and the more the estate and I were looking at things," Vail says, "the more we agreed, 'Let's not repackage something people already have. Let's give them all new material."'
Vail adds, "It was pretty shocking how much there was. There were songs neither the estate nor Larry nor I had ever heard before."
"New Moon" consists of 24 tracks, only three of which have been previously released, two in limited editions. Smith plays all the instruments and recorded most of the material himself.
"One of the primary concerns was being faithful to his vision," Crane says. "Because I had worked with him before, I knew his working method, so that helped. I also listened a lot on headphones and tried to think about how he was placing everything. We also didn't want to modernize it too much."
Many of the tracks, which range from more rocking numbers like "New Monkey" to sparser, bruising voice-and-guitar items like "High Times," were strong contenders for Smith's two Kill Rock Stars albums and therefore make a nice complement to his existing catalog.
As a sort of visual complement to "New Moon," Chronicle Books plans a November release for "Elliott Smith," a photo book compiled by Autumn De Wilde.
The 200-plus-page volume features De Wilde's numerous live and promotional snapshots of the musician, such memorabilia as handwritten lyrics and interviews with family, friends and admirers like Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie), Sam Coomes (Quasi), Matthew Caws (Nada Surf), Jon Brion and Ashley Welch (Smith's sister).
The book also includes a five-song, solo acoustic live CD, recorded over several nights at Los Angeles' Largo. The previously unreleased set consists of "Between the Bars," "Angeles," "Clementine," a cover of Quasi's "Clouds" and Hank Williams Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down."
A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Sims Foundation and the homeless nonprofit organization Outside In.