Tag Archives: Figure 8

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.

 

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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.

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Pete Thomas