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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Elliott Smith

Originally posted June 20th, 2006:

With bio help by Sweet Adeline

The music of Elliott Smith is too often overshadowed by his short life. Just like Nick Drake’s and Jeff Buckley’s lives and music, people tend to paint all of these supposed mopes into a corner of super-sad music. The deal is, there wasn’t just sadness in their songs and lives: there was beauty, happiness and hope too. The main comparison that I would make with these artists is the music they made is timeless because it was inspired by the timeless records they grew up on.

Born Steven Paul Smith in 1969 in Omaha, Nebraska, Smith grew up with his mother in Duncanville, Texas (a town near Dallas), but spent most of his high school years living with his father in Portland, Oregon. Growing up on a standard diet of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Motown, KISS, punk rock and new wave, he started writing his own songs at a very young age. A gifted musician, he first learned piano, then clarinet, then guitar and went from there. Smith had the kind of knack that makes many people envious: he could do something musical with almost any instrument.

Smith, who did not like his first and last name having the same first letter, would go by Elliott from high school on. Playing in bands throughout high school and college, Heatmiser was the first band he was in that gained some national recognition. Debuting in early 1992 with its original lineup, Smith sang and played guitar alongside singer/guitarist Neil Gust, bassist Brandt Peterson and drummer Tony Lash.

Following a self-released tape, The Music of Heatmiser, Frontier Records released Dead Air in 1993. Michael Azerrad compared the band’s sound to Fugazi, Hüsker Dü and Helmet in Trouser Press and I agree. Taking the guitar and drum sound of Helmet with the melodicism of Hüsker Dü and the tightness of Fugazi, Heatmiser could have very well been lost in the grunge pile given the time they were around.

In 1994, Heatmiser would show some strong improvement with the release of a second record (Cop and Speeder) and an EP (Yellow No. 5), but Smith’s first solo release almost completely eclipsed his band’s entire output.

Roman Candle (1994)

A collection of songs recorded at home on a four-track recorder, Roman Candle is better than an ordinary demo. But compared with what Smith would go on to do, this is definitely not the artist at the top of his game.

Released on Portland-based Cavity Search, the album’s nine tracks show a much quieter side of a guy who played loud rock most of the time. Comparing his work with Heatmiser and solo, think of Cop and Speeder as the stuff you’d put on for the ride into the city for the night and Roman Candle as the soundtrack for the late-night ride home.

Heatmiser manager J.J. Gonson co-wrote "No Name #1" but Roman Candle is undeniably a collection of solo Smith compositions. The strong but vulnerable whisper-like approach to singing, busy-but-melodic guitar picking, and spare instrumentation would become Smith’s solo earmarks. Though recorded on four-track with a lot of tape hiss, the songs rise above the sound quality. “No Name #3,” along with “No Name #2″ and “No Name #1,” are some of the highlights.

Elliott Smith (1995)

Smith’s second solo record, released on Olympia, Washington’s Kill Rock Stars, marks a substantial improvement over Roman Candle — not necessarily a vast improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.

Opening with “Needle in the Hay,” which sets the mood for a full album filled with spare acoustic-based songs, Smith boasts improved sound quality and songwriting. The walking, descending melody of “Southern Belle” shows off his acoustic guitar chops, while “The White Lady Loves You More” is like Roman Candle with more atmosphere. Other songs, including “The Biggest Lie” and “Clementine,” present further proof that Smith was onto something special.

Heatmiser released its final album, Mic City Sons, in 1996, but for Smith, it proved to be the beginning of a really interesting part of his solo career. No longer tied to a band, Smith produced some of his finest and fullest work, and in the process, found a larger audience.

Either/Or (1997)

Released in early 1997, Either/Or showcases an expanded side of Smith’s solo material. While still soft, moody and often melancholy, songs like “Ballad of Big Nothing” and “Pictures of Me” show a more upbeat and catchier Elliott. Certain songs featured more instrumentation (from keyboards, electric guitar and drums — all played by Smith) and they are the better for it. Though recorded in a number of houses, Either/Or sounds better than any of his previously home-recorded material.

The influences of alcohol and drugs were a part of Smith’s life for many years, yet he never came across as a spokesman — pro or con. Songs like Either/Or’s “Between the Bars” and “Needle in the Hay” or Roman Candle’s “Last Call” are just a few examples, but they were no invitations to pity parties. Despite the gloom in most of his work before and after, Smith wasn’t swallowed by a world of loneliness, depression and desperation.

A perfect example comes in the form of Either/Or’s closer, “Say Yes” Seeing the world in a more optimistic way following a break-up, Smith comes across as sincere observer of life’s shades of gray. By the end of 1997, more people would get to know the music of this observer, thanks to a certain movie soundtrack.

Good Will Hunting: Music from the Miramax Motion Picture (1997)

Despite what its lead actors and director would go on to do in the years following its release, Good Will Hunting is a powerful film based on sheer merits. Directed by Gus Van Sant, starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who co-wrote the script), along with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver, the movie is more than just a tale of an at-risk guy who is also a mathematical genius — it’s also tender and heartfelt tale about understanding the scars of youth in hopes of a better adulthood. Good Will Hunting is not lovey-dovey schmaltz.

Van Sant was a friend of Elliott’s and a fan of his work, and wanted to use some of Elliott’s songs in the film. Featuring a soundtrack with six Smith songs, along with tracks by Al Green, the Dandy Warhols and Gerry Rafferty and a score by Danny Elfman, you could say this was Smith’s star-making performance. New song “Miss Misery” and a re-recording of “Between the Bars” with strings were accompanied by “No Name #3″ and the original Either/Or version of “Between the Bars,” plus “Angeles” and “Say Yes.”

The film was a major box office success and many audience members took note of Smith’s material. Either/Or was already gaining momentum with college radio listeners before the soundtrack was released, and this only opened more doors. “Miss Misery” was one of several Good Will Hunting-derived Oscar nominations; though Oscars were awarded for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (for Robin Williams), “Miss Misery” lost out to Celine Dion’s inescapable theme from Titantic, “My Heart Will Go On.” No loss: Smith’s solo performance of his song at the Oscars caught even more attention.

XO (1998)

With the wider recognition that came with the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, Smith graduated from being just another singer/songwriting troubadour to a league of his own. Signed by DreamWorks, an imprint under the Geffen Records umbrella, he delivered on the promise of his earlier work — in spades. XO, recorded with producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf in full-fledged studios, is pure magic.

XO shows an artist growing organically into a major-label budget, not blowing it all for an attempt at the brass ring. Though opener “Sweet Adeline” starts off hushed and quiet, when the chorus kicks in with drums, keyboards, chamberlain, electric guitar and bass, you realize this is not Smith’s lo-fi sparseness of the past.

I argue that XO features some of Smith’s best songs. There’s the “Penny Lane”-ish feel of “Baby Britain” and the melancholy beauty of “Pitseleh” and “Waltz #1″ for starters. Often sounding like a full band playing together, Smith played most of the instruments himself with some notable guests: Session drummer Joey Waronker plays on “Bled White” and “Bottle Up and Explode!” while ace producer/orchestrator Jon Brion, Rothrock and Schnapf add little touches here and there. “Bled White” in particular, with its ragtime-like piano, walking bass harmony, chiming guitar and popping drumbeat, is one of the biggest highlights.

Smith would tour behind XO with a full band to large crowds across the states. At the time, DreamWorks was an artist-centric label with a very diverse roster. Smith wasn’t somebody that would appeal to the suburban SUV-driving crowd, but he was definitely a draw in the college radio-and-older crowd. Smith’s popularity at the time was bigger than that of a typical indie artist, but not big enough for mainstream visibility, so DreamWorks was a perfect fit. The label’s resources helped even more with XO’s follow-up.

Figure 8 (2000)

While XO boasts some of Smith’s finest songs, I argue that Figure 8 is his best album from start to finish. The Beatles’ later period provides a major comparison point with Smith’s DreamWorks material, especially this album. Sixteen tracks might be a little overboard, but this is Smith’s Abbey Road.

Songs like “Son of Sam,” “Happiness,” and “Junk Bond Trader” are cut from the same cloth as XO, but aren’t lame retreads. “Somebody That I Used to Know” and “Everything Reminds Me of Her” are more in the vein of his earlier albums, but this helps balance the whole record out. These songs are strong on their own, but Figure 8’s sheer diversity is its biggest highlight.

“Everything Means Nothing to Me” is a simple poem set to a tinkling piano later met by echoey drum fills. “In the Lost and Found (Honky Bach)” boasts a barroom salon piano sounding like it’s being played after the place has closed for the night. Strings show up on a number of tunes, probably most effectively on the epic “Stupidity Tries.” Again featuring Joey Waronker on drums, “Stupidity” has one of those repeating ascending melodies that you can keep listening to over and over again. Attractions drummer Pete Thomas plays on three tracks (including the straight rocker, “Wouldn’t Mama Be Proud?”), Quasi member and Smith live band member (and good friend) Sam Coomes plays bass on four tracks, and Jon Brion lends backing vocals to “Happiness.”

More tours with a full band would follow Figure 8. Welcomed with a warm embrace from his longtime fans, Smith had really hit his stride. New songs popped up in sets, heightening anticipation for his next move. Figure 8’s follow-up would be a long time in the making with the recording of many songs in various studios. Rumors hinted at a double album to be called From a Basement on the Hill. During all this, Smith’s relationship with DreamWorks ended, and he set about finding a new deal. He played a number of solo acoustic shows, debuting many other new songs, and the anticipation grew.

Very sadly, Smith’s life ended in October of 2003. Whether he died of a suicide, or by accident, or something else, many people placed Smith on a list of singer/songwriters that played relatively melancholy material and died young (like Tim and Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake). Yet to those who knew them personally or looked a little closer than the popular stereotype, there was way more to matters than black and white.

When he was alive, Smith was often described as a laid-back and cheerful guy. He wasn’t a flamboyant rock star; he was relatable and wasn’t a contrived image cut out of a magazine. When people looked at his sad-leaning songs and his years of alcohol and substance abuse, they felt Smith’s was a life destined to end prematurely. I argue that this was not the case, and the news of his death being ruled a suicide made me feel very betrayed. I found listening to his records very tough for the next year and matters weren’t really helped with the eventual release of From a Basement on the Hill in late 2004.

From a Basement on the Hill (2004)

After the record was finished by his friends and family, Epitaph Records’ Anti- imprint released From a Basement on the Hill almost a year following Smith’s death. Slimmed down to a single disc with fifteen tracks, the album is some of Smith’s most somber work. However, this record is not a downer at all.

Smith had made a record that evoked the spacious spook of Dark Side of the Moon while also utilizing a dominant vibe of forward motion (a la All Things Must Pass). More psychedelic and brooding than anything he’d done before, Basement is an artistic evolution. Opener “Coast to Coast” features two drummers (one of them Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips) over a bendy guitar riff.

Notwithstanding “Pretty (Ugly Before)” (an upbeat little tune with some of Smith’s most “up” lyrics), a number of the album’s songs seem to focus on endings. Looking at “A Fond Farewell,” “Twilight” and “The Last Hour,” along with titles of “Strung Out Again” and “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” one could write Basement off as a relapse record. Yet listening to “A Fond Farewell” one can’t help but think that a line like “This is not my life/It’s just a fond farewell to a friend” was not meant to be ironic or doomy.

So far, From a Basement on the Hill is the only posthumous release from the Smith estate*. I hope someday a box set of outtakes, b-sides, live tracks and demos surfaces, because there is plenty of good stuff out there that’s worth hearing. He did a number of covers of Beatles tunes (like “Long Long Long” and “Because”), solo Beatles tracks (like “Jealous Guy”), and assorted covers including Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”

A whole treasure trove of unreleased and hard-to-find tracks can be found on http://www.elliottsmithbsides.com/.

*UPDATE: Since this appeared online, Kill Rock Stars released New Moon, a fantastic 2-disc set of unreleased material recorded before Elliott signed with DreamWorks.

2 comments:

drcroc said...

great blog on a great musician. as more people discover elliot his fame will grow...

pa said...

amen! the man was a genius