Tag Archives: Dead Air

Elliott Smith’s 50th birthday – 10 underrated songs

A few days ago I played guitar for Mel at the Betsey Trotwood in London. She was doing a set of Elliott Smith covers at a charity gig for Mind. Tuesday 6th August would have been Smith’s 50th birthday, and the gig was one of several in London marking the anniversary.

It was a fun night, though it was nerve-wracking playing Elliott Smith’s songs for an audience of deep fans – people to whom these songs are clearly very important.

That was what came over more than anything, actually: especially for the performers, but obviously many audience members too, Elliott Smith means a great deal. Pretty much everyone who played shared stories about how they first heard him, and which songs they love most, and why.

I didn’t do that (it was Mel’s gig, so not really my place), but I did mention that Clementine was the first song I ever played for an audience, at the Milestone in Rochford, Essex, in the summer of 2000. I was 18, and I guess it went well enough, as I still play music for people.

I’ve written about Smith a few times here, but I’ve never given my grand unified statement on his music. To be honest, I tried writing it over the weekend, but what I wrote stubbornly refused to cohere into anything worth publishing. I’ve only been able to write about him at a smaller scale, which is often the way when writing about favourite artists.

So I decided that instead of giving you my thesis on Smith, I’d do a small piece on some songs that I feel are a little overlooked within his canon, personal favourites that are not among his most played, covered or celebrated works. If you have an underrated favourite, I’d love to know what it is, so do leave a comment.

Lowlife – Dead Air
Go here for my thoughts on Heatmiser’s Dead Air as a whole, but to cut a long story short, I’m a lot keener on it than many.

Lowlife, built on drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffing and a vocal delivery more Ian MacKaye than Paul Simon, is the sort of track that appears to have pained Smith a few years down the line. What I love about it, and much of Dead Air, though, is the full-bore commitment with which the song is delivered, which suggests he wasn’t half-heartedly playing a role in Heatmiser, whatever he said later. It’s not the thing he became known for, but at his best, it was a thing he was rather good at.

Wake – Yellow No. 5
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it opening track from the Yellow No. 5 EP sees Smith and Heatmiser exactly halfway between Dead Air‘s distortion-heavy guitar attack and the leaner Cop & Speeder. Again, Smith’s vocal delivery is urgent, compelling and unselfconscious, and the band never sounded better – the reduction in sonic real estate taken up the slightly cleaner guitars allows space to Tony Lash’s snare drum to really sock it home.

Condor Ave – Roman Candle
I’ve written at length about Elliott Smith’s first couple of solo records here, so go there for detailed thoughts on his early solo work. Condor Ave is one of the strongest pieces on Roman Candle, musically and lyrically, with deft fingerpicking, and some striking lines. I’m usually more of a fan of Smith’s lyrics when he stays away from imagery and sticks to the language of the everyday,  and I love it when a writer finds a phrase that just perfectly inhabits the notes and rhythm of a melodic line, so every time Smith sings “She took the Oldsmobile out past Condor Avenue”, I smile. It just goes together so well.

Nightcap – Cop & Speeder
A rather patchy record, Cop & Speeder ends on a strong note. Nightcap inverts alternative rock’s usual quiet-loud dynamic shift with a chorus that that brings down the volume and sees drummer Tony Lash playing cross-stick while Smith sings quietly, low in his range. Full marks for the odd time signatures in the verses, too; a reminder that the teenage Smith and Lash bonded over their love of Canadian prog kings Rush.

Satellite – Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith is its author’s first great record, containing loads of songs that stayed in his set until his final shows in 2003. Satellite is a perfect distillation of the album’s nocturnal urban world. As I said above, I usually prefer Smith’s lyrics when he stays away from imagery, but the lyric to Satellite works well, and his fingerpicked chords – ornamented, extended and jazzy – make this one of his one of his most attractive pieces.

Half Right – Mic City Sons
The hidden track from Heatmiser’s last album suggests a sound that they might have pursued had they not broken up. Gentler and more acoustic than just about anything else the band did in its short recording career, it’s not a million miles away from the sound of Either/Or. While Smith’s solo career suggests he had difficulty trusting other musicians to contribute to his work, Tony Lash and Neil Gust always added important details to his Heatmiser-era songs, and it would have been really interesting to hear their takes on, say, Rose Parade, Sweet Adeline or Amity.

Punch & Judy – Either/Or
Either/Or was a breakthrough for Smith, the moment when he found a way to marry the soft-spoken menace of his early records with the expansive pop melodies he loved in the Beatles, while bringing his DIY, home-recorded aesthetic to a kind of perfection, too.

The songs were recorded in a variety of locations with different equipment, and some of the results were definitely rougher than others; Speed Trials and No Name No. 6 have audible hum that suggests a basement recording, done in a hurry. Punch & Judy, by contrast, is the lushest recording Smith had created to date, with a full low end, crisp electric guitars and a drum sound that balances the whole kit rather than favouring the snare drum (as on, say, Alameda). Which wouldn’t matter much if the song, accusatory as it is, wasn’t heart-stoppingly lovely, but it is.

Oh Well, Okay – XO
Smith’s major-label debut is a key text in his career, the home of many of his most recognisable, portable songs; the sorts of things you’d play someone as an introduction to the man and his music: Baby Britain, Waltz No. 2, Sweet Adeline and Bled White. My favourites from the album are Tomorrow Tomorrow (a fleet-fingered picking song I still hope to be able to play cleanly when I grow up), the Paul Simon-ish Independence Day, the mournful Waltz No. 1 and Oh Well, Okay.

Mel and I played this one last week and relearning it in F# minor on guitar for the occasion (I worked it out in G minor on the piano 10 years ago) brought home again what an extraordinary facility Smith had with chords, partly learned through obsessive listening to the Beatles, partly a result of his own fecund musical imagination.

Pretty Mary K – Figure 8
This song is one that’s gone up in my estimation a lot recently. When the album came out, it wasn’t a favourite, really, and probably wouldn’t have been in my top 10 songs off the album. Now it’s right up there.

Why? Well, first there’s the chord sequence, full of surprises and modulations, which in turn leads to a satisfyingly complex melody. Any fool can string random chords together. The key is how you make them live together so that they sound natural rather than arbitrary, whether through voice leading within the chords or through a melody that justifies the choice by including the strong notes of the chord, rather than floating unobtrusively on top. In Pretty Mary K, Smith does a little of both.

There’s also the great one-man-band performance. His drumming has a pleasingly jazzy looseness, his guitar playing – the intro riff on acoustic, the electric arpeggios – is clean, precise and inventive, and his block harmonies are exemplary. Figure 8 includes excellent performances by hired drummers (Pete Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud, Can’t Make a Sound and Junk Bond Trader; Joey Waronker on Stupidity Tries), but Smith’s own playing on Pretty Mary K is just perfect for the song, and no matter how accomplished, a session player probably wouldn’t have equalled the feel.

Memory Lane – From a Basement on the Hill
Written about his time in rehab following an intervention by his friends some time between XO and Figure 8, Memory Lane is sarcastic and very obviously wounded, but also incredibly well crafted, with a nimble fingerpicked accompaniment (unfortunately DI’d on the recording, and so rather sterile and plastic sounding) and perky vocal melody that sweetens, but doesn’t mask, Smith’s sense of betrayal. Not comfortable listening, but then, nothing on From a Basement on the Hill is.

 

Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

heatmiser
Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta