Tag Archives: Pitchfork

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.

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*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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My Mathematical Mind/Everything Hits at Once – Spoon; or Jim Eno, an appreciation

Reading this blog back this morning, I note that I was on rather more combative form than normal when I wrote it last night. Long-time readers may know that I have a standing rule only to write about things that I like and can honestly praise here. I try and avoid cheap slams and cynical takedowns; doing that kind of thing isn’t difficult, it’s not fun and it doesn’t teach anyone anything. But for whatever reason, the following piece contains a couple of mentions of things I don’t like and in places it has the kind of tone you adopt when grandstanding over a pint with your friends, exaggerating your opinions for comic effect.That’s the place a lot of music writing starts from these days, but again, it’s something I usually try to avoid. Just to clarify, then, Messrs Brian Eno, Keith Moon and Dave Fridmann are not among my favourites in their respective fields, and let’s just leave it at that. I’m sure I’ll be back to normal next time. In the meantime, on with the show!

I imagine Eno with Eastwoodian taciturnity, saying all he means by merely squinting his eyes and spitting on the sheriff’s shoes. We townspeople don’t know who he is, but he sure cleaned up that song.

The Eno in the above quote is not Brian Eno. I care nothing for Brian Eno, I’m afraid.

The above quote is actually referring to Spoon’s Jim Eno. It’s from the long-departed Stylus‘s list of their 50 Greatest Rock Drummers. Stylus was something of a rival to Pitchfork back in the early to mid-noughties, albeit one that took a far more poptimistic view of the contemporary music scene. Yeah, it was a somewhat silly list, a bone thrown by the editor to his more rock-focused writers, allowing them the space to gush about Neal Peart, Zach Hill and Yoshimi P-We. But Andrew Iliff got Jim Eno right. He is a drummer of the most gloriously no-bullshit kind.

Case studies:

My Mathematical Mind (Gimme Fiction)
The first Spoon song I heard, and still probably my favourite. Built atop a simple, hypnotic, addictive piano groove, the song leaves huge wide-open spaces that a drummer could go totally hog wild in, if they so choose. With admirable discipline, Eno refuses the invitation. Instead he plays a sort of 6/8 version of a motorik beat: bass drum on every beat except the four. At the first chorus (‘Planning for the apocalypse is’), he adds a semi-quaver stutter to the kick drum just before each snare stroke and begins playing that mean-as-snakes backbeat as a flam. It’s brutally simple but it gives the song a physical impact that’s so vanishingly rare in recorded music these days that I get a little wistful listening to it.

The drums sound so good – powerful, spacious, uncompressed – I wondered at first whether my old favourite Steve Albini was responsible for the recording. Nope. The engineers were in fact Mike McCarthy and Jim Vollentine (…Trail of Dead, Patty Griffin) and Jim Eno himself; he’s a trained electrical engineer, a former microchip designer and part-time record producer, if it’s fair to call someone who produced seven records in 2013 and 10 in 2012 a part-timer. Trust a drummer to care about drum sounds. All the more puzzling and perturbing, then, that Spoon made their new record with famed butcherer of drum sounds and all-round sonic war criminal Dave Fridmann.

Everything Hits At Once (Girls Can Tell)
In which Spoon do Fleetwood Mac doing blue-eyed soul, and Eno does one of the most convincing Mick Fleetwood impressions in rock music. By which I mean he plays that two-and-four, heartbeat-kick-drum thing that Fleetwood made a virtual trademark on Dreams and returned to over and again in the Buckingham/Nicks era.

The song is still taut and crackling with tension in characteristic Spoon fashion, but it’s also one of the group’s sweetest moments, and Eno’s accompaniment is spot-on. He’s a drummer with a solid instinctual grasp of what to leave in and what to leave out, something that the great rock drummers of every era have all known (this is why Keith Moon is not a great rock drummer; if you disagree, you may be reading the wrong blog), and this track is a great example. Most drummers love hitting cymbals, but Eno’s use of the brass here is notably spare, essentially confining crashes to the entrances to and exits from choruses, and one halfway through each of them, and avoiding the ride cymbal entirely. Again, discipline.

I haven’t been listening to Spoon for very long, but Jim Eno is already a favourite, and the more I hear, the more impressed with him I am.

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Jim Eno, jaunty smiling barely masking his capacity for ultraviolence

Dear Boy – Paul & Linda McCartney

Ram, released in the spring of 1971, is the highpoint of Paul’s Farmer McCartney phase. It’s not as home-spun and lo-fi as his debut, McCartney, and its mood is strange kind of low-key anger, giving it more kick than its predecessor. Too Many People sees the singer taking aim at those “preaching practices” (Lennon assumed McCartney was talking about him). Dear Boy, which we’ll get to shortly, takes someone to task for not appreciating what they had (Lennon, again, saw himself as the subject).

The early seventies saw McCartney in self-imposed exile on his farm in Scotland. Some biographers have suggested that Paul had a nervous breakdown during this time, while others have seen it more as an alcohol-fuelled episode of depression. The cover shows McCartney holding a ram by its horns; perhaps the subtext of this was less about his contentment with his lot up on his farm and more about what McCartney himself was wrestling with.

What I love about this album is how relaxed McCartney sounds, simply pleasing himself, while tackling weighty subjects and moods. None of the slightly forced jollity and cheap hookiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da or Maxwell’s Silver Hammer is here present, but the author’s lightness of touch (a trademark of his from And I Love Her onwards) is fully intact. The songs on Ram are as strong as anything he wrote in the latter days of the Beatles if you’re willing to meet them on their own terms and accept that they are designed to be minor pieces, not grand Hey Jude-style statements. And as always with McCartney, there are melodies here that lesser songwriters would kill to have written.

Yet Ram, famously, was not particularly well received by critics on its release (sample review from John Landau: “incredibly inconsequential… the nadir in the decomposition of sixties rock thus far”; sample reviews by Robert Christgau: “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness sake don’t be pretentious about it” and “Ram is a bad record”).

This was blatant nonsense, and when I listen to the album I find it hard to believe that anyone with any sort of ear for music could fail so completely to get any of it. It seems like they must have been expecting McCartney to look outwards more in his early solo career – to address the world and its ills in the way Harrison and Lennon had. McCartney’s music must have seemed insular, whimsical and self-satisfied in comparison. But it’s not valid criticism to dismiss a work because it doesn’t conform to your preconceptions of what a record should be. As Ian MacDonald pointed out in his essay on the Beach Boys, Retire the Fences, Pet Sounds is an abject flop considered as a heavy metal album. Ram seems to me as determinedly, modestly small-scale (and yes, as whimsical) as Paul Simon’s first solo record, which Christgau loved. So why the problem here?

Dear Boy – with its gorgeous harmonies and surprising chord change from Fmaj7 to Bmin7 in the verse – is my favourite track from the album, but there’s an awful lot to like here: the wonderfully daft Heart of the Country (“I want a horse, I want a sheep, I want to get me a good night’s sleep”); the proto-Waits Monkberry Moon Delight; the Beach Boys-esque Back Seat of My Car (though, in fact, the Beach Boys songs that this song most resembles all post-date Ram); the gnomic opening trio of Too Many People, 3 Legs and Ram On.

A recent double-album reissue and accompanying rapturous reviews. Jayson Greene’s 9.2 review in Pitchfork was typical in its assessment of the record’s overall quality, but atypically shrewd in its view of Linda McCartney’s role in them:

The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.

We live in twee-er times than the early 1970s, so perhaps the massive rise in critical and fan esteem for Ram is simply a consequence of that, but open-eared listeners (which is to say, the public, who voted in pound sterling, and sent it to the top of the album chart) understood all along.

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‘Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting’, allegedly

Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast jeremiad has generated a lot of eye rolling from a significant section of music fans and writers. That’s not unexpected. It’s pretty much deserved, too. If you’re going to call out the entire critical community for not doing the job of criticism, which is a serious accusation to level, define your terms and name some names. Rule number one of engaging with a piece of work is to do so on its own terms. So who are these publications and critics who should be talking about form and technique but aren’t? Why should they? Just because Gioia wants them to? Did they used to? Why did they stop? When?

It is true that lots of critics don’t talk about form, technique, structure, harmony, production. But many of the biggest names in popular music criticism never did (when did Christgau or Marcus ever talk chord progressions?). Others have engaged in more, shall we say, musicological criticism, and managed to do so for a non-specialist audience. Critics, like all music listeners, hear music in many different ways.

The internet shapes much of what goes on in the world of paid criticism, and the issue, if issue there be, here is what Chris Ott as identified as the churn: the demand placed on writers to fill a website structure every day, or every week (as Ott points out, the need to do this is ad sales-driven). Five movie reviews, 10 record reviews a 1000-word thinkpiece on something vaguely relevant to whatever story has been capturing attention in the last day or so, over and over. It takes a very special talent to say anything worthwhile about a record in 500 words when you’ve heard it just a few times, a half-dozen at most. Few critics do it well. Few ever did, truth be told. As publications are desperate to beat their rivals and get their review of a big new release up on their site before their rivals do, this problem is liable to get worse before it gets better.

But the internet gives tremendous space to writers that do have something to say, and there are loads of good writers out there with distinctive voices and opinions and ways of hearing music. Some of them are professionals, some former professionals, some strictly amateur. Not all of them are writing about contemporary music (many of my favourites – which include Chris O’Leary, Tom Ewing, Marcello Carlin, Maura Johnston, Nitsuh Abebe, Bob Stanley – write about older music mainly, allowing them time and perspective on what they’re talking about) and not all of them discuss form. But there are, as we have said, myriad ways to engage with music: you can link it to its context in chart history, as Ewing does; to broader trends in music in both pop and semi-pop contexts, as Stanley does so well; you can place it in the context of an artist’s body of work as O’Leary is doing with his retrospective of the entire David Bowie oeuvre (and it’s a truly magnificent achievement). Some can even, like Marcello Carlin and O’Leary, do all three while also being able to discuss harmony, melody, modulation, syncopation, production and any number of words that – whisper it – don’t mean much to non-trained, non-practicing musicians.

I’m well aware that most of the time I’m not writing for the broadest audience. I’m a musician myself so much of what interests me in music is at the level of form and technique. I tend to assume others might feel similarly. I try to explain specialist terms where I think it necessary, and I assume a knowledgeable, curious and intelligent audience. There are writers all over the internet doing the same, writing, analysing and criticising as well and as poorly as they always have done. I don’t know exactly who or what Mr Gioia was reading before he wrote his Daily Beast article, but if he doubts the vitality and usefulness of contemporary music criticism, perhaps he should read more widely. And more deeply.

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Article about music criticism – contractually obligated photo of Lester Bangs

On the canon

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a little aside on the idea of a canon in popular music:

By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music. However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it’s rather less likely to become part of the canon.

When I was eighteen I went off to university to read English at UCL. At UCL, all first-year undergads (at least in the English department) follow the same programme of study, no choice in the matter. You do a module of Old/Middle English (that is, you read Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in the original Anglo Saxon, but a translated Beowulf – because even a certain academic in UCL’s English department isn’t that cruel – and then stuff like Gawain & the Green Knight, written in a Middle English dialect that makes Geoffrey Chaucer’s writing seem as easily comprehensible as Dan Brown’s). You do a module of foundation texts in English: Paradise Lost, The Rape of the Lock, The Prelude, Gulliver’s Travels, Bleak House, The Waste Land (there were a couple more but I forget – maybe Tristram Shandy or Boswell’s Life of Johnson). You do a module on critical terms and theory.

And you take a module called, imposingly, Intellectual & Cultural Sources. Which could carry the alternative title: ‘Squeezing As Much About the History of European Literature and Thought Into a Student’s Head As We Possibly Can In Twenty Weeks’. This is a whistle-stop tour through: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Aristotle, Plato, Sophocles, St Augustine, Boethius, Dante, More, Montaigne, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Marx & Engels, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Woolf and Barthes. Whew. That’s a lot of knowledge to drop on an eighteen-year-old, an awful lot of DWMs (or DWEMs, if you prefer).

And it is. It was, and still is, since the course has scarcely changed since I was there 13 years ago. The Western Canon doesn’t change much in 13 years, and the list of works that UCL’s big kahunas think are absolutely essential to read before you go on to study anything else hasn’t changed much either. I don’t think we studied Epistemology of the Closet in 2000, which they do now (and it’s a welcome addition to the list in that it may alert some of the more addled students to the DWM-ness of the programme of study they’ve just gone through).

All of which would seem sensible enough. No one can read everything, and it’s not a controversial opinion to state that Shakespeare is more important than Kyd, even if you like Kyd more.

The problem comes when we don’t interrogate this canon at all, when we just blindly accept it, and particularly when we don’t move beyond it. These writers and their works are important. But every time we focus on them and put everything else to one side, we engage in a process that makes those few chosen works a little bit bigger and more important, and everything else a little more marginalised. If you marginalise something enough, it gets forgotten, and then no one reads it. The canon in pop music doesn’t have the same status as the Western Canon does in art, literature, philosophy, classical music and so on, but it seems pretty unarguable that it exists. It’s reinforced in radio playlists, in the type of music books that publishers will touch (‘Another book on Dylan? Sure! A book on Judee Sill? Well, we just don’t think there’s a market out there’); in the broadsheets and rock monthlies (as I noted a couple of weeks ago re: Mojo and Uncut); in the major online music sites (all of which regularly publish top-100 lists which hardly vary from Mojo‘s or Rolling Stone‘s).

There are a couple of major difference between popular music and literature. It takes dozens or hundreds of hours to read a book. It takes four minutes to listen to a song. If you’re the kind of person that wants to find out about music, a relatively small investment of time is needed to do it. Set aside an hour and you can listen to a few songs each by, say, the big four thrash bands. If you like it, you can go further. If not, then you can stop there. But it’s so much easier to fit that kind of listening into a busy life than it is to read outside of the canon or mass-market contemporary popular fiction, just because of the difference in the time it takes to consume the art: you may, like me, frequently hear a voice in your head saying, ‘How can you justify spending your time reading [for the sake of argument] Shakey again when you’ve still never made it all the way through Finnegans Wake?’ (and I haven’t). But the ease and speed with which you can listen to music you’ve never heard before means that the judgmental voice inside you is liable to keep its opinions to itself.

Secondly, writing a novel is a major job of work. It takes a long time. Way, way longer than it does to read that novel. It is exceedingly unusual for an average workaday writer to tap into something greater than themselves or to push themselves to the edge of their talent every day for six months or a year or more to produce something truly timelessly classic if they themselves are not that order of talent. It just doesn’t happen. In pop music, musicians, producers and songwriters do it all the time. There are thousands of wonderful songs by acts whose only real consequence is that they made that one great record. And that’s part of what makes popular music what it is, is how democratic it is. Three minutes of greatness is possible for just about anyone.

My only real objection to the formation of a rock/pop music canon is that it tends to focus on those acts that consistently made strong albums and marginalises the makers of classic pop singles or individual songs (since not all get released as singles), especially if they only made one or two. Sure, if you want to know about the most widely agreed-upon great works in post-rock’n’roll pop music, if you feel like that’s an important and worthwhile thing to do, you need to know about Revolver, and Pet Sounds, and What’s Going On and Blue. That’s fine. They’re all fantastic records and I wouldn’t want to be without them. But it’s worth taking the time out of your day – worth moving outside of the canon – to hear Mouse & the Traps’ Sometimes You Just Can’t Win. If you really dig that song and want to hear more by them, there’s more out there. You may conclude that the genius of Mr Mouse and His Traps doesn’t extend beyond that one record. But just hearing that one song will, I guarantee you, improve your life a small amount. The Beatles and Beach Boys and Joni and Marvin will still be there tomorrow.

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St Michael Overcoming Satan, John Flaxman, UCL library