Tag Archives: Elvis Costello

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 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


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.


*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:

Sulky Girl – Elvis Costello & the Attractions

It doesn’t sound like an oldies band. I couldn’t believe it when they cranked up behind me.

Elvis Costello

Sulky Girl was the UK single from Brutal Youth, the 1994 Elvis Costello album that reunited him with the Attractions, drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve and, rather surprisingly, bassist Bruce Thomas (surprisingly because Bruce and Elvis had famously not got along for some years by this point, with Thomas’s 1990 memoir and its unflattering portrait of Costello a key source of friction). Fans were delighted, critics were split on its merits (too long, said many) but, significantly, it got Costello back in the public eye in a way he hadn’t been for some time. He’d had a heavily bearded wilderness period around the time of 1991’s Mighty Like a Rose, and 1993’s collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet, The Juliet Letters, hadn’t exactly thrilled a lot of old fans of his spleen-venting late seventies output either. In an era when lots of mainstream music was relatively raw and unvarnished and a significant majority of bands openly looked to the past for their inspiration, younger listeners were potentially receptive to veteran artists if they could make a record that sounded alive and vital. With Sulky Girl making number 22 (his first top 30 single in 10 years), Costello even got back on Top of the Pops, singing a spirited live vocal over a pre-recorded radio edit while the band mimed dutifully along.

I was one of those young listeners, having never previously given a thought to Elvis Costello one way or another in my 12 years. I’m sure I knew who he was, may have known a song or two other than Oliver’s Army (Watching the Detectives, possibly), but he wasn’t on the radio all that much, he wasn’t someone either of my parents liked, so I didn’t know anything about him. But he was right in his assessment – this didn’t sound like an oldies band. The compilation album I had with Sulky Girl on it contained nothing else with as much energy, not even from the youngsters (Blur, Oasis, Suede – this was 1994, after all).

Sulky Girl has most of the hallmarks of a classic Elvis Costello tune, both the good and the bad. Starting with the bad, the lyric is considered but perhaps not quite as clever as it would like – ‘He’ll pay for the distance between cruelty and beauty’ is a terrible way to close the final verse, contorting both the previously established rhythm of the line and the natural cadence of the word ‘beauty’. Hard to know what he was thinking with that one. And while the sulky girl does come off better than other women in EC tunes – she is unambiguously portrayed as the intellectual and moral superior of men she encounters, and of her family too – Costello can’t resist a final section, telling her that, unlike everyone else, he sees through her.

Still, Costello is usually at his best when he’s telling someone else what they’ve done wrong, and the band do everything possible to drive him along, to wind him up further. Pete Thomas, a real drummer’s drummer, plays a particular blinder in this respect. His verse groove (half-time feel, tom on the backbeat, filtered/distorted by Mitchell Froom – or possibly the groove is the combination of a loop and some live drums from Thomas) is nicely atmospheric and ominous, promising an explosion, which duly comes with an eighth-note build-up on snare and floor tom under the final line of the verse, taking us into the chorus.

Thomas’s snare drum, as it is on most of the album, is undamped and ringy (this same snare sound is beloved by fans of reggae and hated by fans of Metallica). It’s never going to be appropriate for everything but that unruly sound is perfect for Sulky Girl and adds another dimension to Thomas’s energetic fills, which are a career highlight, particularly the ones in the first bridge: ‘It’s like money in the bank [good fill] Your expression is blank [great fill] But when the chance appears [really great fill]…

Thomas has a fantastic feel throughout the song, animating even the sections when he’s merely playing two and four in a supporting role. He’s right in the middle of the beat, powerful and authoritative, never sounding rushed and never sounding lazy either. What’s really impressive though is that he can do this on any song, at pretty serious tempos, when other drummers would lose their form and get inconsistent. His explanation of his practice regime in Drum! magazine gives a clue as to how he does it:

I play eighth-notes with each hand for 20 minutes in unison. I like the idea of being balanced and ambidextrous even though I never actually do it. I do eighths counted out to 100. Then I do a shuffle in unison. Then I play double paraddidles, triple paradiddles, then triplets – three on each hand. Then single-stroke rolls, another 100. If I have a demo of the song I am going to record, I set the metronome to the song’s tempo and practice everything at that tempo. Then when it comes to fills in the session I don’t rush. It makes me more confident.

I also use that as a warm-up exercise, three times a day: when I awake, at lunch, and before the show. I don’t always want to do it, but when I hit the stage I don’t get that awful feeling, like, ‘My arm doesn’t want to play this!’ I hate that worse than anything. With Elvis it’s one song quickly into the next, often five fast ones in a row, so I can’t have any cramping.

While he is well known for busy playing and some iconic fills (Watching the Detectives; I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea, with its Mitch Mitchell quotes; Radio Radio), it’s Thomas’s backbeat placement that’s key to his greatness, and a major part of what I think made the song stand out to me as a kid. He was on similarly solid form on Elliott Smith’s Figure 8 (Junk Bond Trader, Can’t Make a Sound, and my favourite, Wouldn’t Mama be Proud), which is where I first had the opportunity really to study him, and became aware – listening to the difference between Smiths sketchy playing on, say, LA and Thomas on Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud – of what difference a great drummer can make when they simply play for the song. But when I want to hear Thomas show off a little bit, Sulky Girl is what I put on.


Pete Thomas

Love’s Enough – David Ackles

“I won’t get maudlin,” Ackles promises midway into the second side, locking himself in the barn as the dappled stallion gallops to join his brothers and sisters on the open range with his mane flying free in the breeze.

Robert Christgau, review of David Ackles’ American Gothic

From the facetious tone of his review, I guess the Dean found Ackles to be mendacious and phoney rather than incompetent. Quite why Christgau thought himself qualified to judge musicians’ motivations without knowing them personally, I’ve never been able to determine. While, like Christgau, I find American Gothic an unsatisfying record by a songwriter of lesser artistic value than most of his peers (both the more commercially successful ones and the unsung heroes; Judee Sill came out in 1971, Heart Food in 1973), his review seems gratuitously mean now, with Ackles long dead from cancer, and with far greater and more mendacious threats to popular music living, breathing and walking amongst us.

Plenty of other people have loved his work. Elton John’s a professed fan. Bernie Taupin, too – so much so that he produced American Gothic. Phil Collins picked Down River while on Desert Island Discs. Elvis Costello mentioned him on stage while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ackles mostly went unnoticed in his career. Christgau’s one of the few to have noticed and dismissed him.

Ackles was nothing more than a likeable and humble guy with a bent towards musical theatre, Weill and Copland, a rather corny sensibility not entirely unlike Neil Diamond (whom in the latter’s more restrained moments Ackles rather resembles vocally). How much you like Ackles may well depend on your tolerance for sprechgesang and being told rather than shown how characters think and feel (the biggest problem with the title track, although it does end with the killer line ‘They suffer least that suffer what they choose’), but he’s unlikely to enrage you; the enthusiasm of his bigger fans is likewise perplexing.

Other than the delivery and the pedestrian nature of the lyrics (would that Ackles had possessed a flair for comedy and a taste for the macabre or grotesque like Brecht, Walker, Waits or Newman – the album title might have been a better fit for the music therein), the biggest problem with the record is the fussy arrangements, conducted by a soul sympathetic to them – Robert Kirby, known for his work with Nick Drake, and whose work has always been a bit twee, a bit callow.

Love’s Enough is sparer, could have been cut by any artist in any era with only minimal changes to the arrangement and production to make it suitable for its time. In the eighties, its almost inaudible brushed drums would have been replaced with enormo-super-mega-giant-bashing-away-in-a-cave drums. In the fifties it might have had the benefit of Gordon Jenkins’ or Nelson Riddle’s attentions. But the song would have been affecting either way.

Tonally and lyrically, Love’s Enough doesn’t fit on its parent album – it’s a very hard gear change after the opening title track – but without it the album would sink under the weight its ambitions. A moment of quiet reflection, in an intimate register, on a recognisable situation, Love’s Enough is a classic of sorts. I can’t recommend American Gothic to all but the very curious*, but its finest ballad deserves the audience that Elton, Bernie, Elvis and Phil have tried to win for their hero.


*Oh all right then, I do like Oh, California. I’m not made of stone.


Rear cover of American Gothic (after Grant Wood)

Here’s some of my recent work on Soundcloud. Click on my name in the top-left corner or the word soundcloud in the top-right corner to go to the site and hear more songs.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 2

What’s exciting and endlessly fascinating about recording drums (and the same is true for when you’re listening to music too, I think, although when I began placing microphones I became consciously aware of all the practical implications of something I’d previously understood unconsciously) is that every drummer in the world – every single one – is different. Give them the same boom-boom-bap drum pattern to play and the same tempo to play it at, and every drummer will be different. Different feels, different internal balance between the kick, snare and hi-hat. Some will feel almost metronically perfect. Others will get on top of the beat and look to push the excitement by playing the snare right on the very front of the beat. Some will lay back, adding a don’t-hurry-me swing. Hopefully these three wildly different drum tracks will demonstrate this (listen to the first 30 seconds of #4, then switch to #5 – you should really hear what I’m talking about!

3) Rock With You – Michael Jackson

John ‘JR’ Robinsons’ drums on Rock With You are almost superhumanly tight, but they’re not rigid. It feels great. You could never listen to this song and assume that the rhythm track was programmed – it’s too playful. Two and four on the snare, 16th notes in the intro and choruses, 8th notes in the verse, displaced quarters in the pre-chorus (by which I mean he plays the ‘and’, as in one-And-two-And-three-And-four-And), endless little ‘pssts’ and emphases – he’s having a ball.

The recording of the drums, by Quincy Jones’s long-time engineer, Bruce Swedien, is fantastic. Like Alan Parsons (qv), Swedien is not a fan of compressing signals with heavy transient content (like drums). Over to Bruce:

Good transient response is especially important when recording acoustic instruments. This is one case where it’s extremely important for one to have equipment that is able to capture as much of the initial transient as possible, and all its accompanying delicate details.
In the music that I am normally involved in, I have always felt that good transient content is one of the very most important components of the recorded image.
I would even go so far as to say that transient response has at its core a direct relationship to the emotional impact of a recording. Particularly in the main genres of music that I record…. namely R&B and pop recordings.
The faithful recording and reproduction of sound source transients makes the strong rhythmic elements in R&B and pop recordings much more dramatic. These are the elements that are so important, such as the ‘kick’ or bass drum, the snare drum, hand-claps, percussion… etc.
I think that well recorded transients give R & B and ‘Pop’ recordings a feeling of tremendous energy.
To me, the excessive use of compression and limiting diminish the drama of sound source transients in recorded music.

(from a Q&A on gearslutz.com, where Bruce did his best to school the tin-eared masses)

Back to JR. As well as being the creator of some of the most danceable drum tracks in this history of popular music (Rock With You, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough, The Way You Make Me Feel, Give Me the Night), his opening snare fill on Rock With You is one of the all-time fills.

4) Every Breath You Take – The Police

Stewart Copeland is a famously ‘busy’ drummer, so it’s not a surprise that his simplest part may be also his most underrated. But it perhaps also allows us a little look at what makes him tick as a player. Copeland’s tricky hi-hat fills in songs like Walking on the Moon showed a player who liked to fill space, but the choruses to songs like Roxanne revealed the power and energy he had in the tank when he chose to use it (listen to the outro when Copeland plays a double-time backbeat alternating between the snare and toms – he’s clearly giving the toms what for).

So Copeland’s playing had an oafish streak to it, at odds with his reputation as a progger and reggae fan. But there’s another factor in his drum part to Every Breath You Take: his frustration at Sting’s insistence that he play a very simple kick and snare part with no hi-hat in the verse, and no fills. This tension boiled over frequently in the studio and soon enough would end the band. But in terms of this recording, we ended up with a drum track in which Copeland strains at the leash all the way through. He’s right on top of the beat, almost to the point of being early. He’s this barely contained energy animating the whole song. Again, the indispensability of Copeland’s contribution is confirmed by listening to any of the godawful cheesy versions Sting has done live since the Police split up.

5) If It Makes You Happy – Sheryl Crow

Every time I hear this song on the radio I’m tickled by just how lazy the drum track feels. I don’t mean that the drummer can’t be bothered; I mean that the drummer couldn’t be any more at the back of the beat without the song grinding to a halt. There’s no doubt that this effect is intended. The lazy swagger of the song is the whole point. The drummer wisely keeps the fills to the minimum, concentrating on placement of the backbeat at the very back end of the beat, but his sudden, frantic 7-stroke triplet drum roll at the end of the last verse, under the song’s key line ‘So what if right now everything’s wrong?’, is a great addition.

According to Discogs, the drummer was Michael Urbano. Jim Keltner and Pete Thomas (the Attractions) also play on the parent album, and as much as I love those two guys (Pete Thomas on Elvis Costello’s Sulky Girl is one of my favourite drum performances ever), I can’t imagine even those all-time greats playing the song better than Urbano did.