Tag Archives: XO

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.

heatmiser
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

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Foo Fighters at 20

Gee, I got old. Twentieth anniversaries of records I bought as a teenage will start coming thick and fast now. Some I’ll write about fondly; others I might listen to and wonder what the hell I saw in this music. But, and this I can guarantee, it’ll be with a where-did-the-time-go bewilderment.

So Foo Fighters, then. Nowadays the acceptable face of mainstream rock and professional nice guy, albeit one with enough self-regard to deem the fact that he’s making a new record worthy of an 8-part HBO series full of slo-mo shots of the band walking purposefully, Dave Grohl didn’t always have quite such an assured position in the world.

In 1995, still processing Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl didn’t know how to proceed (I assume anyone reading this knows Grohl played drums in Nirvana, right? OK, sorry. Of course). Like many musicians who go through a trauma, for a while he didn’t want to hear music, let alone play it. It reminded him of everything that had happened. And while he’d made good money from Nirvana and could afford to live quietly, take his time and see what came his way, he was still only 26, had a lot of working years ahead of him and not much idea of how to fill them.

Eventually, as the pain subsided into an ache, Grohl decided to treat himself to a week in a 24-track studio, Robert Lang’s, not far from where he lived in Seattle. If Lang’s isn’t the biggest name in studioland, with a Studer A827 tape machine and an SSL E series desk, it was still a major facility, so it was no small present Grohl was giving himself. Nonetheless, essentially he was just doing a more hi-fi version of something he’d done a few years before in 1992, when he recorded a collection of songs by himself and gave them to some friends in Virginia to release on their cassette label, Simple Machines. Pocketwatch, which has since been endlessly bootlegged, came out under the pseudonym Late! (Groh’s exclamation mark). He was planning to do the same thing again: release it under a band name, keep his own name off the sleeve and let the album find whatever audience it could.

Working with him as co-producer was Barrett Jones, his former drum tech in Nirvana. He and Grohl made the record in six days, with Grohl switching from one instrument to the next for each song, before moving on to the next one, burning through four songs a day. Jones has said since that he felt the album he and Grohl were making could be a big deal, but both were perhaps still naïve about the industry at that point and didn’t foresee the reaction his work would get among the big LA labels when they got wind of it (a process accelerated by Eddie Vedder playing a couple of songs on a radio show he hosted). Grohl was effectively able to name his own price (his own price being that he be allowed to start out small), with the labels confident that any release by a former member of Nirvana would pay for itself many times over. Grohl conceded to having the album remixed by Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (who would later work on another old favourite of mine, Elliott Smith’s XO)

Somewhere over the next 10 years, the group slowly became one of the biggest in the world, and even now Grohl can turn out a strong single or two on each record, but I checked out a long time back.I find the sound of his albums, with the exceptions of the debut and 1999’s vintagey There is Nothing Left to Lose, extremely sonically fatiguing. The worst offenders, The Colour & the Shape and One by One, are essentially unlistenable, with the massed overdubs of guitars forcing the drums to occupy ever smaller real estate, until they no longer retain any of the shape of a real-life drum performance. This is crucial to a good-sounding, good-feeling, rock record (the Butch Vig-produced Wasting Light is a partial exception to this trend; it sounds, well, OK). And Grohl’s grandiosity and general unwillingness to challenge his audience has resulted in a lot of play-it-safe soundalike songs.

But I remain hugely fond of his debut, so distinct from the rest of the group’s music that it’s really the work of a different artist. The medium-fi recording, noticeably lacking in low end and bass guitar, is hugely charming, Grohl’s drum performances have room to breathe, and the material whether goofy (Weenie Beenie, Wattershed, This is a Call) or otherwise (Exhausted, I’ll Stick Around) is strong, and benefits from the low-key vibe. Each song sounds better in the context of all the others. It’s a great collection of songs; later Grohl records have striven to be a collection of great songs. Much harder to do the latter well. You couldn’t make this record better by adding or subtracting anything.

I should admit, too, that at 13 I found the idea that one man did all this by himself (playing the drums! and the bass! and the guitars! and singing it! and writing all the songs!) to be hugely inspiring.

Foo Fighters 02/50. Phoenix, Arizona, 1995 by Steve Double (UK)
Foo Fighters, 1995

My own one-man-band stuff (not recorded in a 24-track studio):