Tag Archives: Elliott Smith

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

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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.

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*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: