Tag Archives: Elliott Smith

Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 at 20

I seem to do an Elliott Smith post at least once a year. Here’s another one. Chris O’Leary, author of the excellent 64 Quartets and Pushing Ahead of the Dame blogs (the latter published in book form as Rebel, Rebel and Ashes to Ashes), happened to tweet yesterday that Figure 8 has its 20th anniversary this month. I’ve hardly blogged about music in the last few weeks, with everything else going on, and writing about Figure 8 seemed like a good way to ease myself back in. I’m on leave for two months now (I’ve been furloughed), so expect an uptick in activity here.

DreamWorks Pictures was founded in 1994 by former Asylum/Geffen/DGC head honcho David Geffen, former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg. In 1996, they launched DreamWorks Records as a subsidiary, signing up legendary Warner Bros Records veterans Lenny Waronker and Mo Ostin to run the label. With the money that the founders had and the industry clout and smarts of Waronker and Ostin (guys that were renowned for being probably the most humane, artist-friendly and musically astute execs in the business), DreamWorks could have been the greatest record label ever, bar none.

It didn’t happen that way. OK, so timing was against them; fast forward less than 10 years and the idea that any label in the reduced file-sharing era could be what Asylum or Warners had been 35 years before would seem laughable. But the decisions made within the label ensured it couldn’t have happened anyway.

Perhaps Waronker and Ostin ceded too much control to their A&R team. Perhaps they were just getting old and had lost their touch. Whatever it was, the DreamWorks roster was weird in the extreme, with no defining aesthetic. The label made an immediate splash by handling the North American release of Older, George Michael’s first record after his Sony lawsuit, and other smart early signings included the Eels and Rufus Wainwright. But the label also signed dreck like is-this-meant-to-be-funny industrial act Powerman 5000, Britpop ambulance chasers Subcircus and southern hip hop third-stringers PA.

Ostin and Waronker achieved god-level status in the 1970s by working with self-directed singer-songwriters – keen-eyed students of musical history who could write and execute their own music with minimal production help. They’d have been advised to stick to that rather than signing people like Papa Roach.

In early 1998, though, they made another savvy signing. Elliott Smith was fresh off the success of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery, had some early recordings for his next record already in the can and was, as ever, exploding with new songs. He must have seemed a can’t-miss. XO, his first DreamWorks record, did very well for them, and saw Smith taking advantage of the expanded sonic possibilities afforded to him by greatly expanded budgets. The album made use of horn and string players, plus a session drummer or two (one being Joey Waronker, son of Lenny), and was recorded at some impressive facilities: Ocean Way, Sunset Sound and the Sound Factory. But Smith didn’t yet go whole hog, keeping the recordings of Baby Britain and Amity he’d begun at his friend Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios in Portland, which Smith himself had helped to build (according to Crane, Smith was extremely accomplished at mudding drywall).

For the follow-up, recorded largely in 1999, Smith abandoned restraint. He wanted a big sound – the grandest, most Hollywood sound he’d ever captured – and he had the wherewithal to do it now. Working once again with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (who was married to Smith’s manager, Margaret Mittleman), Smith graduated to even more storied studios – not just Sunset Sound, but Capitol Studios in the famed Capitol Records Building and Abbey Road. According to William Todd Schulz in Torment Saint, his biography of Smith, Elliott had been musing aloud about how he’d like to work at Abbey Road someday, and someone at DreamWorks took him at his word and started booking the session right away. Such things do not happen to musicians who stay signed to Kill Rock Stars.

From the off, Figure 8 is a more widescreen affair than even XO‘s most expansive moments. Opener Son of Sam, a deceptively perky 4-minute pop song about being so disconnected from everyone that you feel your closest kin is a serial killer, heralds a new sound for Smith immediately: brighter, sharper and louder (not in terms of distortion, just in terms of the compressed mix and Don Tyler’s heavily limited, brute-force mastering job) than ever before.

Listening to it, one can’t help but marvel at Smith’s craftsmanship. It’s full of gorgeous chord changes, spot-on harmonies and killer arrangement touches like the dual guitar-and-piano solo, which are all the more impressive given that he played and sang literally everything on the recording himself. But it’s not a warm sound, or a comforting sound. It’s not a sound for late-night headphones listening. It’s big and grand, but a little cold. It keeps you at a distance. There is, you realise after several listens, not really a chorus.

Beginning with Son of Sam, the first four songs see-saw back and forth between what we might think of as the Figure 8 sound – full-bodied, full-band arrangements with sparklingly trebly electric guitars – and Smith’s familiar acoustic picking. Problem is, Son of Sam apart, the songs are not the record’s strongest. In fact, if I could play god* with this record, I’d cut Somebody I Used to Know and Junk Bond Trader entirely, and think long and hard about Everything Reminds Me of Her, too. According to Schnapf, he and Smith disagreed over the optimum ratio of solo-acoustic to full-band songs, with Schnapf pushing for more of the acoustic material. DreamWorks, meanwhile, wanted the record to be shorter, while Schnapf believed the only way the right balance of soft and loud could be achieved without leaving out strong material was for the record to be longer. The finished tracklisting suggests a degree of overthinking, not to say muddled thinking, and feels like a compromise.

For me, the album picks up again with the stunning Everything Means Nothing to Me, a  piano ballad somewhat akin to XO‘s Waltz #1, recorded at Abbey Road and with Quasi’s Sam Coomes on bass as part of an arrangement featuring Mellotron strings and a drum track with a prominent slapback echo, the latter both played by Smith. It’s a starkly beautiful recording, one of the best things Smith ever did, and one that he would cite as a favourite afterwards.

LA is harmony-drenched rock, notable for its galumphing rhythm and closing Bangle-esque harmonies pinched from Walk Like an Egyptian. As a commentary on the city Smith had moved to from New York at Mittleman’s suggestion, it has a hallucinatory, everything-happening-at-once quality perhaps derived from Penny Lane, but like many Figure 8 songs, its impressionistic lyrics full of people (especially soldiers) behaving inexplicably, suggest something going deeply wrong with Smith (“Living in the day, but last night I was about to throw it all away”).**

At the Lost and Found is a song I really go back and forward on. Sometimes its tinklingly repetitive piano figure sounds endearingly naive, at other times infuriatingly repetitive. Today, it’s the latter. Halfway through the second verse, Smith seems to recognise the problem and drops the riff to a lower octave. I wonder if the song would work better for me if it had all been played there. The middle eight is certainly interesting harmonically, so the song’s far from a dead loss, but it’s not one I return to often.

Stupidity Tries is one of the album’s highlights – a career highlight, even – and a sort-of embodiment of the Figure 8 aesthetic. Recorded at Abbey Road with Joey Waronker sitting in on drums and Sam Coomes on bass, it has a notably different energy to the other songs; it may even have had a live basic track. Smith’s chord sequence, full of surprising semi-tonal changes*** and cool modulations****, is one of the best he ever cooked up, and the band work up a real head of steam in the instrumental outro, which also benefits from Suzie Katayama’s orchestration – probably the biggest string sound ever captured on an Elliott Smith record.

Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of Easy Way Out next to Stupidity Tries that makes the former sound gauche and half-written, but despite its impressive finger-picking, the song has never done anything for me, and I find it’s cynical finger-pointing unpleasant to the point where I reach for the skip button.

I’ve never got the sense that Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud is particularly esteemed by his fans, but I love it. Pete Thomas (of Elvis Costello’s band, the Attractions) is brick-wall solid on drums, the chorus is a West Coast AM radio hook to die for and Smith’s vocal performance is one of his best – the verses and middle eight see him largely in the middle of his chest range, where his voice always sounded strongest, despite it being the register he used the least on his records (including Heatmiser’s).

Color Bars and Happiness are similarly strong, the former being my favourite among the record’s softer songs. Like Can’t Make a Sound later, Happiness is a great song marred a little by its coda – not so much the music but the way Smith’s high-pitched tremolo-picked guitar is weaponised by the brutal mastering job. (On the other hand, if you have a build-up of wax in your ears, listening to those songs on repeat would be a cheap way to scrape them clean.)

I’ve written before about Pretty Mary K, so forgive me for repeating myself, but it still pretty much sums up my thinking on it:

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, 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.

Which leaves the trio of songs that close the record. I Better Be Quiet Now is one of Smith’s most affecting admissions of hopelessness (“I got a long way to go, getting further away”), with a great arrangement of doubled acoustic guitar and counterpoint electric lead that comes in two thirds of the way through. Unlike some of the other predominantly acoustic songs on the record, it holds its own with the likes of Happiness, Son of Sam and Stupidity Tries.

Can’t Make a Sound, ear-scraping coda apart, is breathtaking: one more of Smith’s inventive chord sequences, patiently forceful Pete Thomas on drums and another huge orchestration from Suzie Katayama.

The record ends on the echoey piano instrumental Bye, which sounds like a cue from a Jon Brion movie score. It used to feel out of place, but it’s grown on me down the years, and I’d keep it now. The little instrumentals dotted throughout Figure 8 (unlike Bye, they’re not usually given their own track) are part of the album’s character, and I wouldn’t want to lose them.

Figure 8 is easily the least cohesive musical statement Smith made as a solo artist, and may be even less coherent than Heatmiser’s spectacularly patchy second album, Cop and Speeder. Its best songs are transcendently good, full of invention and animated by Smith’s evident delight at his new-found resources. Yet, it’s also marred, particularly in its first half, by its inability to settle on a style or mood, as well as some songs that are a wide notch or two below Smith’s best work.

Despite this, I remain extremely fond of it, and listen to its best tracks frequently. If you’re looking to sell someone on Elliott Smith with a playlist, there are four or five tunes here that are essential, and several others that are nearly as good. But if you’ve never heard him before, I’d point you to Either/Or if your taste runs to the minimalist or lo-fi, or XO, if you want a more Beatle-esque experience.

ADW Elliott Smith
Elliott Smith being directed by his friend Autumn de Wilde during the making of the Son of Sam video. If you’ve not seen it, I greatly enjoyed de Wilde’s recent feature debut, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma starring Anja Taylor-Joy, Bill Nighy and Johnny Flynn.

*Oh what the hell. I’ll play god. Here’s my, substantially shorter and more electric, version of Figure 8. Call it Figure 8.1, I guess. Figure 8 the song, Smith’s cover of the Schoolhouse Rock tune’s spooky first section (sung by Blossom Dearie), would mark the end of side one, and be rescued from its B-side obscurity. It was intended to be part of the album until the very last minute, when it was bumped for Easy Way Out – a poor decision.

  1. Son of Sam
  2. Everything Reminds Me of Her
  3. Everything Means Nothing to Me
  4. LA
  5. Stupidity Tries
  6. Figure 8
  7. Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud
  8. Color Bars
  9. Happiness/The Gondola Man
  10. Pretty Mary K
  11. I Better Be Quiet Now
  12. Can’t Make a Sound
  13. Bye

**Smith would start smoking heroin and crack while living in LA. The exact timeline is unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume Smith was spiralling downwards at this time, even if he was not yet an addict, or even using regularly.

***That arpeggiated four-chord run that takes us out of the verse into the chorus – F#minor, E, B, D# – is brilliant.

****Although the song is essentially in E, and the chorus begins on C#minor, much of it’s in C, with a prominent G major, and B7 as a pivot to take us back into E.

If a 10-minute distraction would help right now, here’s a couple of new songs I released recently. Email me through the contact form on the About page if you’d like a Bandcamp download code.

 

 

 

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.

 

Featuring “Birds” – Quasi

Featuring “Birds” is one of my very favourites. When it came out in 1998, it sounded like no other album I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs with immediately memorable pop melodies, and then buried them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord (a chintzy electronic keyboard from the late 1960s). Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney’s drummer), meanwhile, played drums with frantic, nervously twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

The album sets out its stall immediately with Our Happiness is Guaranteed. Weiss plays a syncopated pattern with improvised rapid-fire fills while Coomes makes as much noise as possible, segueing into the song proper via a series of tone clusters (there’s a melody in there, but the harmonies applied to it seem to be a result of keyboard mashing) and a brief riff that recurs prior to every subsequent verse. The song, when it begins, is a sci-fi fable with a sing-song melody, which Weiss harmonises sweetly. The whole thing is over in under three minutes.

The tension between the group’s melodies and its casual dissonance and sonic aggression made the music thrilling to me, as did the unconventional song structures (many tracks are just a verse and a chorus, or even just a verse on its own) and Weiss’s gonzo drum fills, which sounded like her mind was only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she didn’t quite know where she was going to go next. The musical tension may well have been fed by personal tension, too; Weiss and Coomes had been married but were already separated by the time of Featuring “Birds”, and as the group were a two-piece, there was no one else to defuse things when they got heated. I imagine the rehearsal studio was an interesting place to be at times.

The album is full of songs like Our Happiness is Guaranteed – wonky little tunes that are definitely pop, but that are skewed by Coomes’s sardonic delivery and the group’s full-bore commitment to its sonic aesthetic. I Never Want to See You Again, California (with its hilarious intro: “life is dull, life is gray/at its best, it’s just OK/but I’m happy to report/life is also short”), the surprisingly poignant I Give Up and Nothing from Nothing are all gems, and Please Do shows that Coomes could even rival his friend and sometime bandmate Elliott Smith with an acoustic guitar in his hand and nothing but his fingerpicking to fall back on.

Alas, the group couldn’t repeat the trick. Field Studies, from 1999, was a less frantic affair all round, and saw the group diluting its signature sound with more electric guitar and piano, less distorted keyboard, and more bass guitar (courtesy of a guesting Smith). It also saw Coomes’s chippy observations losing their freshness and becoming dulled by his reliance on unvarying end rhyming and repetitive melodic phrases. I checked out after Sword of God, which suffered even more badly from the same problems (and also sounded rubbish, as the group had recorded themselves), and never really picked them up again. But I still come back to Featuring “Birds” and would recommend it unhesitatingly to anyone with any love for 1990s indie.

Adrift in the musical multiverse – alternate versions, demos, outtakes, mixes

A perfect, definitive, best-of-all-worlds recording doesn’t exist. Not outside of the imaginations of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, at any rate.

Whatever direction a song is taken by a team of artists and producers during its production, different decisions could have been taken at every single step of the process, any one of which may have in some small way made for a better or worse end result. The crazy thing is how little we as listeners ever really think about that when we listen to our favourite songs.

Even music obsessives only really confront this when we’re listening to the alternate versions, different mixes and demo versions that fill up the second disc of two-CD special editions of classic albums. (And yes, I know you do. You wouldn’t be here otherwise, would you? It’s OK. You’re among friends.)

Let’s enter this hall of mirrors, this musical multiverse, where every decision that is taken could have gone another way and resulted in the world knowing an entirely different end product.

What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye (Detroit Mix)
One of the best tracks off one the best albums ever made. A masterpiece of a song and recording. Surely any competent presentation of it would have resulted in a killer record? And yet.

Listen to the “Detroit” mix of the title track, done in Gaye’s absence by Motown staff engineers at Hitsville USA, Detroit, available on 40th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” version of the album. It’s the same tracking as on the album mix we know and love, it’s still a great song, it’s still a very fine record. The mix is lucid and the key decisions – to place the two lead vocals in opposite channels to allow them to play revealed without the different phrasings stepping on each other, for example – are defensible. But play it against the LA mix that made it to the album and the song seems palpably diminished in its Detroit form.

It’s not just the approach to panning and the general topology of the mix that isn’t optimal here. The LA version is pristine, light and airy in a way the Detroit version just isn’t. The Detroit mix is compromised somehow. It just doesn’t soar. But no console has a “soar” fader  – it was flesh-and-blood people who made What’s Going On as we know and love it. People with good ears and fertile auditory imaginations, and possibly better consoles and equalisers. Hearing this, it’s immediately why Gaye felt more could be extracted from the masters and insisted the Detroit versions be canned.

Everybody’s Been Burned – David Crosby/The Byrds
Everybody’s Been Burned, Crosby’s first great song, had apparently been written as far back as 1962 in Crosby’s folk-club days (the year of the first Bond film, Dr No, so the song’s 007-theme chord sequence may have been a mere coincidence) and was demoed several times before it found its way on to a Byrds album (1967’s Younger than Yesterday – probably their best record).

The band’s recording of it, distinguished by bass playing by Chris Hillman of intuitive genius, is one of the best things they ever did, but having spent some time with this demo version, available on a compilation called Preflyte Plus, I’m basically convinced that this rough recording is the best version that exists, better even that that spine-tingling album take. Everything that would blossom in Crosby’s work is in here, and in a neat historical curlicue, this rough demo weirdly presages the version that would be cut 30 years later by the king of lo-fi acoustic balladry himself, Lou Barlow (on Sebadoh’s wonderfully titled Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock).

Son of Sam – Elliott Smith
Speaking of Barlow… Despite many similarites, and despite the fact that they knew each other and were friendly, Elliott Smith was not Lou Barlow. Barlow has released an absolute ton of material officially, and has given away even more on his website. If you want to hear the drum version of Puzzle from Emoh, Barlow’s cool with that. He made it available on his website. (It’s not got the arrangemental details of the Emoh version, but it’s very nice.)

Smith never did that. There have now been nearly as many Elliott Smith songs released after his death as there were when he was alive, but as for what permission he may have given for all this, who can say? Lawyers’ statements. Rumours. The truth resides in neither.

As a fan, though, much of what has been released since his death in 2003 (on From a Basement on the Hill, New Moon and now the soundtrack to documentary Heaven Adores You) seems to me to be weak: songs that tread the same ground as other, superior songs that we know he was satisfied enough to release, because they came out in his own lifetime. Why wasn’t High Times (also sometimes called Coma Kid) not released on Elliott Smith? Probably because Needle in the Hay used the same 8th-note downstroke strumming, and was much better. Would Smith have wanted us to hear this recording of High Times, given that he didn’t see fit to use it on the album? Depends who your source is.

So listening to this stuff is a morally complicated matter, and an often unsatisfying experience musically, except in an academic sense (hearing the unused stuff does, it can’t be denied, sharpen your appreciation of the work that made the cut). Sometimes, though, a true gem appears, which only makes things worse from an ethical point of view as a fan, as I genuinely have no idea whether Smith would have been cool with people hearing this stuff.

Much of the pre-release buzz about the soundtrack to Heaven Adores You was about it being the first time the song True Love would be appearing on an official release. But True Love really isn’t all that much of anything. Far more intriguing is the acoustic version (it sounds a bit too considered to called a demo) of Son of Sam. Smith’s guitar playing is especially impressive. I’m not sure whether he’s in standard tuning or not, but the inversions and droney voicings he uses for many of the chords make the song sound very different from the way it does on Figure 8. It’s Son of Sam as Smith might have recorded it if it had been written in 1994 or 1995. It’s fascinating to hear a song that became a pretty big production rendered in the simplest way possible, and being equally effective as it was in its studio incarnation.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps – The Beatles
The phenomenon of emptying the vaults in the name of revenue generation began in earnest with the Beatles’ Anthology project.

There were three double-CD Anthology releases, and they were a mixed bag indeed. Much of what was included was banal in the extreme: an alternate take of Kansas City-Hey Hey Hey Hey where the only difference is that the band hadn’t warmed up yet? Hmm, could have lived without that one. But the glimpse into the evolution of, say, Strawberry Fields Forever was stunning. As you listen to John Lennon strumming the chorus hesitantly on a guitar in his house, you realise just what kind of work it took to turn that half-formed thing into Strawberry Fields as we know it; hundreds of hours of combined effort by the band members, the producer and the engineering staff, making one inspired contribution after another, doing things with tape editing that defy belief.

For many fans, though, the greatest treat of all was hearing George Harrison’s demo of While My Guitar Gentle Weeps, with a simple acompaniment of acoustic guitar and harmonium. Taken at a faster pace than the album cut and in a lower key, allowing Harrison to sing higher, it’s a much lighter experience than the White Album cut, which is slower and squarer, and weighed down further by its overly literal lead guitar work by a guesting Eric Clapton. Yes, Eric, we get it. Your guitar is weeping, now kindly be quiet.

If you want to hear how it should be done, click on this, wait three and half minutes and let Prince melt your face. RIP, little dude.

prince-hall-of-fame

Only one image I could post really. Prince, in face-melting form at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2004

2015 Clip Show Post

I’ve been pretty busy this last week or so with work and Christmas preparations, and I haven’t really been able to find the time to write anything. So I thought a good way to plug the gap would be to bring forward this year’s clip show post.*

I did this last year, too, and enjoyed the process of putting it together. I’ve gone through what I’ve posted this year (100 posts thus far) and picked out 10 favourites, with a bit of a bias towards posts I liked rather than ones that got a lot of hits. Some of them are brief little throwaways, others are long and rambling, but I like them and they seem to include most of whatever it is that keeps me still doing this.

Elliott Smith’s first two solo records (January)

On Saturday Afternoons in 1963 – Rickie Lee Jones (February)

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis (April)

Radiohead’s The Bends at 20 (April)

No More Amsterdam – Steve Vai feat. Aimee Mann (May)

Holst’s Neptune (July)

The Sound of The Band (August)

Sail On – The Commodores (August)

Almost Here – Unbelievable Truth (September)

Singer-songwriters in 2015 – is genuine originality possible any more? (December)

I hope that some of these are new to most of you and you find something to enjoy here. I’ll be back in a few days – Christmas itself is likely to be a fair bit quieter than the last few weeks have been! Hope you’re having a great time. Take care.

*Do they still make clip shows? You know, like in a sitcom, where characters sit and reminisce about something that happened in an old episode, then they show a clip? It’s been years since I saw one.

 

Pop songs about pop songs: Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish (repost)

Hi all. Sorry for doing the repost thing, but it’s been a very busy week and I’m not feeling all that well. I’m having trouble shaking a cold I’ve had for a week now. In fact, just when I thought I was OK, it came back stronger than before. Hopefully be back with something new on Sunday.

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. Their meta-pop – pop songs written about pop songs, with a pervasive sense of irony and a sense that they weren’t taking any of this too seriously – just didn’t catch on. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC. They looked like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing. They became instead a cult band, loved by a devoted few.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum. Leaving aside the band members and hired players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who had succeeded Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer during their disco-era records and had serious hit-making pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians who shared their outlook, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something breezier and lighter on its feet, in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

Jellyfish

C + E – Lou Barlow

When I’ve been listening to an artist for a long time, eventually I stop wanting great albums and grand statements from them. There comes a point where I know what I think of them, have a good handle on their catalogue and only really need from each new record one or two songs that stand comparison with their best work. That’s all – a couple of songs to add an evolving iTunes playlist. In the last 10 years, Barlow’s solo debut, Emoh, gave me Legendary, a new and better version of Morning’s After Me* and Holding Back the Year. Thanks, Lou. On to the next one. Goodnight Unknown had The Right and The One I Call. Those will do nicely. Newie Brace the Wave I only acquired this morning, but it sounds very promising, and C + E already feels like one for the ages.

It’s always great to reconnect with Barlow’s music, to hear it as I heard it in my high-school years. It’s worth reiterating (for younger readers, if indeed I have any) that in the 1990s lo-fi was not an aesthetic choice so much as a practical necessity if you were working outside a traditional recording studio environment. Machines like the Tascam 414 and 424 (I still own one of both, though my dad is kindly warehousing them) allowed you to create multitrack recordings in your bedroom, but with such a low tape speed and four tracks crammed on to a quarter-inch cassette, the noise floor was high and the high end response limited. It didn’t matter. You could make records in your bedroom. The idea is now commonplace. In the early 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen used the newfangled Tascam 144 to create demos he would eventually release as Nebraska, it was something close to revolutionary.

Barlow – restlessly, relentlessly creative once J Mascis turfed him out of Dinosaur Jr – probably had no realistic choice but to go the home-recording route. Recording all his songs and tape loop experiments in a for-hire studio would have been pretty darn costly. As an alumnus of one of the most beloved bands in American indie rock he was always going to find a label interested in putting out his stuff, but how helpful was it that he could deliver them a record without any recording cost? Even once Sebadoh evolved into a real band around the time of III, Barlow’s portions were still home recorded. Anything released under the Sentridoh banner was home recorded. Early Folk Implosion was home recorded. The “Lou Barlow” records he’s made in the last 10 years have been recorded in his home studio or in a similar spirit, quickly and unfussily, in mid-range pro facilities.

This quick-and-unfussy vibe is exactly what his fans respond to. Of course, just because you’re recording at home on a Portastudio, doesn’t mean that the recording is a live performance with no overdubs and no punch-ins and no fixes and that there really was a live performance and this is it and golly gee isn’t this so unmediated and intimate and real?

But damned if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

Listened to objectively, C + E has its sonic problems: the vocal is loud in relation to the guitar; the ambient, roomy sound of the vocal has a clangy quality to it that’s not totally pleasant. None of this matters. The feeling the song creates makes all the rest irrelevent. C + E feels like a moment in time, a musician at his most unguarded.

That’s why the people who care about Lou Barlow (or Elliott Smith, or Robert Pollard, or any other home-recording auteur) care so much: because the music is so unvarnished, you feel a deeper connection to it, to the person who made it. Maybe it’s delusory to feel that way, but the illusion created is a powerful one.

Listening to Brace the Wave, and the extraordinary C + E, I’m struck over and again by the same thought. It’s great to hear Barlow, aged 49, still doing what he’s always been best at: banging on his guitar alone in a room, tearing at your heartstrings.

3 ages of Barlow
l-r Lou Barlow, Gavin Rossdale, Jerry Garcia**

*The original was from Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel, a multi-artist concept/compilation album (featuring lo-fi indie rockin’ vets like Mary Timony, Guided by Voices, Grandaddy, Quasi and the inevitable Steven Malkmus) about a military man with severe allergy-induced hallucinations. If that sounds too unbearably cute for you, be assured that Barlow brings some genuine pathos to his contribution, and that its origins as one chapter in a larger story don’t stop it being an effective standalone track on Emoh.

**I’m teasing of course. l-r Barlow in the late 1980s, the late 1990s and recently

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

Foo Fighters at 20

Gee, I got old. Twentieth anniversaries of records I bought as a teenage will start coming thick and fast now. Some I’ll write about fondly; others I might listen to and wonder what the hell I saw in this music. But, and this I can guarantee, it’ll be with a where-did-the-time-go bewilderment.

So Foo Fighters, then. Nowadays the acceptable face of mainstream rock and professional nice guy, albeit one with enough self-regard to deem the fact that he’s making a new record worthy of an 8-part HBO series full of slo-mo shots of the band walking purposefully, Dave Grohl didn’t always have quite such an assured position in the world.

In 1995, still processing Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl didn’t know how to proceed (I assume anyone reading this knows Grohl played drums in Nirvana, right? OK, sorry. Of course). Like many musicians who go through a trauma, for a while he didn’t want to hear music, let alone play it. It reminded him of everything that had happened. And while he’d made good money from Nirvana and could afford to live quietly, take his time and see what came his way, he was still only 26, had a lot of working years ahead of him and not much idea of how to fill them.

Eventually, as the pain subsided into an ache, Grohl decided to treat himself to a week in a 24-track studio, Robert Lang’s, not far from where he lived in Seattle. If Lang’s isn’t the biggest name in studioland, with a Studer A827 tape machine and an SSL E series desk, it was still a major facility, so it was no small present Grohl was giving himself. Nonetheless, essentially he was just doing a more hi-fi version of something he’d done a few years before in 1992, when he recorded a collection of songs by himself and gave them to some friends in Virginia to release on their cassette label, Simple Machines. Pocketwatch, which has since been endlessly bootlegged, came out under the pseudonym Late! (Groh’s exclamation mark). He was planning to do the same thing again: release it under a band name, keep his own name off the sleeve and let the album find whatever audience it could.

Working with him as co-producer was Barrett Jones, his former drum tech in Nirvana. He and Grohl made the record in six days, with Grohl switching from one instrument to the next for each song, before moving on to the next one, burning through four songs a day. Jones has said since that he felt the album he and Grohl were making could be a big deal, but both were perhaps still naïve about the industry at that point and didn’t foresee the reaction his work would get among the big LA labels when they got wind of it (a process accelerated by Eddie Vedder playing a couple of songs on a radio show he hosted). Grohl was effectively able to name his own price (his own price being that he be allowed to start out small), with the labels confident that any release by a former member of Nirvana would pay for itself many times over. Grohl conceded to having the album remixed by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (who would later work on another old favourite of mine, Elliott Smith’s XO)

Somewhere over the next 10 years, the group slowly became one of the biggest in the world, and even now Grohl can turn out a strong single or two on each record, but I checked out a long time back.I find the sound of his albums, with the exceptions of the debut and 1999’s vintagey There is Nothing Left to Lose, extremely sonically fatiguing. The worst offenders, The Colour & the Shape and One by One, are essentially unlistenable, with the massed overdubs of guitars forcing the drums to occupy ever smaller real estate, until they no longer retain any of the shape of a real-life drum performance. This is crucial to a good-sounding, good-feeling, rock record (the Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light is a partial exception to this trend; it sounds, well, OK). And Grohl’s grandiosity and general unwillingness to challenge his audience has resulted in a lot of play-it-safe soundalike songs.

But I remain hugely fond of his debut, so distinct from the rest of the group’s music that it’s really the work of a different artist. The medium-fi recording, noticeably lacking in low end and bass guitar, is hugely charming, Grohl’s drum performances have room to breathe, and the material whether goofy (Weenie Beenie, Wattershed, This is a Call) or otherwise (Exhausted, I’ll Stick Around) is strong, and benefits from the low-key vibe. Each song sounds better in the context of all the others. It’s a great collection of songs; later Grohl records have striven to be a collection of great songs. Much harder to do the latter well. You couldn’t make this record better by adding or subtracting anything.

I should admit, too, that at 13 I found the idea that one man did all this by himself (playing the drums! and the bass! and the guitars! and singing it! and writing all the songs!) to be hugely inspiring.

Foo Fighters 02/50. Phoenix, Arizona, 1995 by Steve Double (UK)
Foo Fighters, 1995

My own one-man-band stuff (not recorded in a 24-track studio):

Elliott Smith’s early records: Roman Candle & Elliott Smith

There’s something really strange about Elliott Smith’s early solo records. They’re not like anything else I’ve ever heard. His later albums make all sorts of overt references to the rock canon: some McCartney changes here, some double-tracked Lennon there, a bit of Brian Wilson, a bit of Harry Nilsson, some Paul Simon picking. His early records just sound like himself.

That distinctive vocal delivery from his Heatmiser days is still there – a weird mix of Elvis Costello sneer and Ian MacKaye bellow – but it’s a whispered version of it. The song structures, the melody lines, the guitar playing, though – it’s a thing that Elliott Smith did that didn’t copy anything else and hasn’t been copied since. “Soft and gritty at the same time,” as Slim Moon (owner of the record label Kill Rock Stars) put it. Indeed, Smith is still occasionally playing the role of tough guy on these songs. About 16 years since I first heard it, 21 since it came out, I still don’t know whether his delivery of the verses of No Name #2 is awesome or unintentionally comic.

Concrete hands picked up the telephone ring
Do you know who you’re talking to?
No, and I don’t care who.
She whispered quiet terror news.
He didn’t give a hoot,
Said do what you have to do.

There’s a context to all this, of course. These records were made during the alternative rock boom that followed the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind, a period where a lot of music got on the radio – a lot of music got taken to people’s hearts – that was unapologetically loud, ugly and fierce. An acoustic guitar was a signifier of something other. For a guy like Elliott Smith, who came out of a punk rocky, collegey milieu in Portland, Oregon, to pick up an acoustic guitar and play hushed, intimate songs broke with the orthodoxy of the day, at least in the Pacific Northwest; maybe it’d have been different if he’d come up as a New England coffeehouse guy. But Smith probably felt that his songs couldn’t be too pretty, at least not at first. And they weren’t – pretty, that is – except in short passages. His music wouldn’t acquire conventional prettiness until around the time of Either/Or, when an upgrade in the recording technology available to him was accompanied by the emergence of his 1960s and ’70s singer-songwriter influences.

Reviewers and fans have often compared Smith to Nick Drake: the early death, the sad music, the acoustic guitars… Actually, it’s a stretch. Tonally, the work of the two writers could scarcely be further apart. Drake was diffident, likely to underplay his emotions, even at the end. Smith’s music was always angry, always accusatory, from the first Heatmiser record through to the last song on From a Basement on the Hill. His solo debut, the 4-track Portastudio-recorded Roman Candle (particularly the title track, Last Call and Drive all over Town) is furious. When the torrid Last Call is followed by the instrumental Kiwi Maddog 20/20*, with its electric guitar overdubs and surprisingly fleshed-out drums, it’s a rare respite from all the anger. But it’s the calm of someone who’s raged at the world merely to the point of exhaustion, not to the point where anything’s been resolved. The darkness still hangs overhead.

His lyrics are parables and observations. The biggest mistake people make is assuming his songs are all confessional. It’s his own life, but it’s a lot of allegory. You see recurring characters in his songs.

Larry Crane, for Pitchfork‘s Keep the Things You Found oral history

That’s as maybe. Larry Crane knew Elliott Smith and we didn’t. Yet Crane has an interest in trying to correct Smith’s reputation as the downer king of 1990s indie rock. But this reputation isn’t founded on the lyrics alone. It’s the mood, the tone, the imagery and, of course, Smith’s own life events. It’s everything. And a lot of people are very invested in it.

And the thing is, they’re not wrong to hear it in the music, particularly the early records, and Elliott Smith is the one from which much of the “Elliott Smith” myth is derived. To address Crane’s point, whether the drug stories of Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town, The White Lady Loves You More or Single File were things that Smith had experienced himself at that point in his life or witnessed at close quarters or simply imagined isn’t that relevant; the point is that he was clearly fascinated by dope (the ritual of it as much as anything else), choosing to write about it again and again, and one way or another ended up using it. There’s never been any dispute about that.

Yet listening to Elliott Smith is not the gigantic bummer that listening to From a Basement on the Hill is (in full disclosure, I wish I’d never heard From a Basement, wish it hadn’t been released. There are three or four beautiful songs on there, but it’s not enough to stop me feeling thoroughly dirty each time I listen to it, and incredibly sad that someone as talented as Smith was reduced to junk like Strung Out Again). Elliott Smith burns with such fierce creative energy it’s actually a life-affirming experience to hear it. Every song sees Smith discover something new about his craft. Whatever his personal life was or wasn’t like at that time, as a writer he was in a state of grace that few ever achieve. This is what people continue to hear in Elliott Smith, why it’s still such a strong fan favourite.

He’d go on to balance the strengths of his early work with his deepening writing and record-making craft on Either/Or. But while he did become a stronger songwriter, he did become a slightly less unique one. Never sinking to the level of a mere pasticheur, nevertheless it became easier to find people to compare him to. The raw and intimate early records are essential for the fan because they’re so unadorned, so concentrated, so completely themselves.

smith

*For readers outside the US who aren’t sure what the song’s title signifies, imagine a beatific instrumental named after Buckfast Tonic Wine or Scotsmac.

The author’s own lo-fi one-take vocal-&-guitar doings: