Tag Archives: From a Basement on the Hill

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.

 

Advertisements

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: