A recent New York Times article about the compiling and editing of Elliott Smith's final, posthumous album claimed that even during its preparation, a mainstream celebration of him is gaining traction, one that he never would have chosen, and which in fact he would have fled or fought. Despite his disinterest in publicity and promotion, Smith had a deep effect on a wide range of musicians. The recently released Chemical Friends by n.Lannon wears this influence proudly on its lapel, making it feel at times like the next-to-last Elliott Smith album.
Nyles Lannon, the eponymous artist, is busy with quite a few projects. He has released an album of electronic music, Astronomy for Children as n.ln, and plays guitar in the up-and-coming San Francisco band Film School. Judging from the quality of these diverse releases, Lannon has talent and inspiration to spare. Film School makes sweet-but-sad downtempo rock, and the music released as n.ln is funky and glitchy electronic tunes that bring to mind the Notwist. Chemical Friends is, at its best, a perfect synthesis of the two styles: emotive lo-fi rock with adept electronic flourishes.
Lannon's label for Chemical Friends, Badman Recording Co., name-drops, among others, Elliott Smith, Pinback, Nick Drake, and Fennesz in its promotion of the album. While elements of these bands pop up here and there within Chemical Friends, Lannon regularly returns to sounds that channel the Elliott Smith of 1997's either/or. Lannon uses the similarly sparse and haunting guitar and voice arrangements that characterized either/or, but spruces the tracks up with strings and electronic elements. What's always noticeable above the music, though, is Lannon's voice. It's breathy and hushed, and Lannon flits into a falsetto in the same range and at the same time as Smith did to such powerful effect. The two voices are ineffably similar, and this uncanny reminiscence makes listening to Chemical Friends engaging, but sometimes unnerving.
The album opens with "The Catch", riding the lower octaves in guitar and voice to evoke a Pinback song, albeit one with darker undertones (to these ears, it sounds like a condemnation of John Ashcroft, but that's probably just me ). But subsequent songs like "Hollow Heart" and "Spy" are evocative more of the Smith Songbook than anything else. Lannon excels when he's taking all his diverse influences and fusing them together. The excellent "Demons" and "My Last Breath", with their playful mingling of guitar and electronic instruments, justifiably earn the comparisons to other artists making indie electro-rock like the Postal Service and the Notwist.
Lyrically, Chemical Friends is more guarded than the painfully frank declarations that made disciples of Smith's fans, and in this instance Lannon's lyrics don't help to dispel the aura that hangs over the album. Lannon writes great melodies, and his voice is captivating to hear, but unless we know he's singing about the Patriot Act, or his love of puppies and ice cream, or anything at all, the only thing bubbling to the surface are the tone, timbre and delivery of his voice, which together sound too familiar to ignore. As difficult as it is to box Lannon within the Elliott Smith influence, even after repeated listens, n.Lannon's Chemical Friends slips over the ears in a pleasant enough way, but leaves very little impression beyond this obvious comparison. It seems a solid bet that future n.Lannon releases will be more influential than influenced, but Chemical Friends is primarily a trip down memory lane.