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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:

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Underrated Drum Tracks I have Loved 2014, Part 7 – I Give Up – Quasi

My last few posts have been in praise of drummers who played for the song. The strength of Earl Young’s performance on Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind this Time) is the well-placed, authoritative backbeat. The more I’ve played with drummers as a songwriting guitarist, or as a drummer with another songwriter, the more I’ve valued that skill. While the title of this series of posts is slightly tongue in cheek, the skill involved in playing a simple groove with precision and a good feel that works for the song is something I’ve come to appreciate more with each passing year.

Teenage wannabe drummers don’t get it, of course. It’s all about notes per second. I understand that. I do. As a teenage guitarist, I considered myself above appreciating ‘shred’ guitarists, being more attracted to noise-mongers on one hand and ‘feel’ players on the other. But as a music fan who understood a little bit about drums from playing bass in a high school band, I loved to hear drummers playing loads of really cool fills, preferably ones with a lot of notes, so to speak. And in 1998-99, no one I listened to played more cool fills than Janet Weiss, particularly on the Quasi album Featuring “Birds”.

It sounded like no other record I’d heard. Sam Coomes wrote fragmentary, snarky little songs and then covered them in huge, gunky layers of distorted Rocksichord. Janet Weiss’s drums, meanwhile, were frantic, full of nervous twitchy energy, but with the confidence to fill every available space in the songs.

Quasi were a 2-piece – organ/vocals and drums/vocals – so there was a lot of space. Weiss had no bass player to lock in with, no lead guitarist to give room to. In any other style of music, to play as Weiss did on Featuring “Birds” would have to be considered overplaying. With Quasi, she had almost no restrictions, even fewer than with Sleater-Kinney, so the fun in listening to Featuring “Birds” for me was the wacky shit Weiss would throw in there.

I Give Up is a great example of their Featuring “Birds”-era style. It starts off with a melodic theme played by Sam Coomes on the organ with the right hand on the organ, no vocals, while his left hand plays a wandering, rising-and-falling bass line. The tone is distorted, and there’s some fun dissonance in there to stop everything sounding too perky. The B section, arrived at via a big fill from Weiss, is still eighth-note 4/4, but based on a five-bar pattern, and with a pushed accent and a huge fill that starts halfway through the fourth bar while the organ holds an E chord. After repeating this four times, the feel shifts to triplets and the drums temporarily stop. Coomes begins singing in his nasal monotone while Weiss harmonises on top. Lyrically, the song takes an unexpected turn for the serious:

They say ‘Hold on to your dream’
That plays good on TV
But never worked for me
Now I need to find a way to occupy my time
Until the day I die
‘Cause I give up
I give up
It’s gone so wrong, so long
It’s gone so wrong
So long, so long
I give up

Concision was the great strength of early Quasi, diluted when Coomes tried to play his former Heatmiser bandmate Elliott Smith’s game and adopt conventional song structures and lengths. I Give Up says more in its 11 lines than anything on Sword of God, When the Going Gets Dark or American Gong. But anyway, back to Janet Weiss. When she comes back in, it’s with a shuffle pattern on floor and snare, at the line ‘Cos I give up’. Then, at the song’s emotional climax (‘It’s gone so wrong, so long), she lifts the song by shifting back to a full triplet pattern on hats and, after that, ride. The key thing is that at each point of the song’s journey from its playfully circular and twisting beginning, through its goofy middle section to its unexpectedly poignant ending, Weiss always does the right thing: when the openings are there to be filled in the middle section, she fills them confidently, vigorously and with a sort of quizzical aggression. You get the sense her mind’s only a stroke or two ahead of limbs and she doesn’t quite know where she’s going to go next. But when she has to rein it in and give space to the lyric, she’s just as adept. Indeed, with Elliott Smith and the Go-Betweens, Weiss has shown she’s more than capable of backing more classic singer-songwriters than Coomes, her former colleagues in Sleater-Kinney and her illustrious post-S-K employers, and with the frankly impossible Drumgasm (a drum trio record with Matt Cameron and Zach Hill) behind her, I’m intrigued to see who she’ll team up with next.

JW
Janet Weiss c. 2000-ish?

Some of you may be interested in hearing some of my own recent work. Here you go!: