Tag Archives: Fashion

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.

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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

No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 4

Everything you’ve heard about King Crimson is true. It’s an absolutely terrifying place.

Bill Bruford

Blues rock with a contemporary grammar.

Robert Fripp, on his guitar work on Fashion

4) Fashion – David Bowie (solo by Robert Fripp)

Robert Fripp is the Dark Lord of Skronk. The King of Evil Guitar. Dare ye look upon his face?

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This is the mild-manned, gentlemanly-looking guitar wizard who fried the minds of thousands of hippies when King Crimson supported the Stones in Hyde Park a few days after Brian Jones’s death. This is the man whose raging lead guitar on David Bowie’s Fashion is still divisive 30-odd years on, and was trimmed right back for the single mix.

What makes Fripp such a glorious guitarist is his absolute lack of interest in the established grammars of lead playing. Listen to everything he recorded with King Crimson, everything he did with Bowie, with Eno, all his production work with Peter Gabriel, Daryl Hall and Talking Heads – find me just one blues cliche. Find me a convention that he doesn’t pull apart just for the fun of it before putting it back together with its legs where its arms should be.

The spirit of Fripp is apparent in many guitarists. There’s some of that Frippian bloody-mindedness in Neil Young, in Johnny Greenwood, Andy Gill, Graham Coxon, Joey Santiago. But Fripp’s commitment to his path is so thorough-going as to make him an almost entirely different sort of musician. Not for nothing did he name the first King Crimson album of the 1980s Discipline. Robert Fripp would be nowhere without it. He’s the guitar hero as research scientist rather than Dionysian mystic.

But most Fripp-watchers recognise that while the reputation he has for severity and dedication to his craft and his muse is a justified one, audible in much of his playing, especially his playing outside King Crimson, is the joy of experimentation, the thrill of transgression. His solo at around 2.40 on the album mix of Fashion is the perfect exemplar of this. It’s a solo that could only be played by a tone-deaf beginner or someone who had mastered the instrument back to front and inside out. No one in the middle of those two extremes would begin to play such a solo. It has most of the elements we would associate with lead guitar playing: an ear-grabbing sound, some fast tremolo picking, interesting textures, string bends. Yet the result defies description and sounds like nothing else in rock music.

If you’re not familiar with the man or his work, stop pussyfooting – get some Fripp in your life!

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Robert Fripp, Brian Eno, David Bowie

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?