mr. 101 rises up from the ashes of heatmiser
by Randy Silver
typed by rebekah
it's a sunday night in new york city's
east village and it's quiet. a
door creaks open, then closes; ice cubes tinkle into a glass.
elliott smith is onstage at brownie's,
which is packed to the gills. it's
suddenly cold in mid-april, but the windows are fogged over as people
squeeze ever closer, straining to catch a glimpse of smith, seated before
them. even the music industry types are paying attention something so
rare that it makes everyone else in the club strain that much harder to
he doesn't disappoint. smith's guitar
playing is almost surprisingly
impressive lots of people pull off playing a rhythm and a melody line at
the same time, but few make it feel so natural. but that's not really
what draws people in. It's the combination of the sound all hypnotic
melodies and his voice, alex chilton high and naked with emotion, that
really gets you. it's only on repeated listenings that his lyrics, rife
with imagery that's often at odds with the melody, really start to kick
walking by him at the bar earlier, nobody
gives smith a second glance.
stop to talk with him a minute, and you'll have to lean in close to hear
what he's saying. his voice is clear, but soft; hearing the words is
easier than understanding what he's trying to get across. and while he's
willing to give broad strokes, pinning him down on personal matters is
another matter entirely.
so we start off with ground rules and
background. this is what's
generally reported about elliott smith: he lives in portland, though he
might be moving for a while. he's in a band called heatmiser, who signed
with virgin records last year*or, rather, was in heatmiser. ("heatmiser's
done," he says at one point. "and I'm very happy about that.") he has now
released 3 solo albums (the first, roman candle, on the cavity search
label; elliott smith and either/or were released on kill rock stars), and
each has been better received than anything Heatmiser ever released.
but his past? that's a blank page so
far. "i don't want to talk about
drugs, and i don't want to talk about heatmiser," he says. fair enough.
here's what smith is willing to say: born and raised in dallas, texas;
moved to portland with his dad at age 14 ("family problems," he says);
moved to northampton, mass., to go to college, where he was "picked on in
the summer when the rednecks came out. they called me dirt."
hold on. northampton is a sleep arts
town in western massachusetts, a
town with a reputation for its liberal bent. it's a place I've visited a
few times without ever being accosted by itinerant locals. "did you ever
have green hair?" smith asks. fair enough.
back to smith. he has been writing and
recording his own songs without a
band since age 14, but had never played them for anyone until friends at
portland indie cavity search convinced him to record a solo record. "i
had the aspirations as a kid," he says, "but I didn't consider myself
so what changed? despite his reticence
to discuss some matters, there is
one thing smith readily acknowledges, almost happily. "yeah, i have a
self-esteem problem," he shrugs, a hint of an ironic smile crossing his
lips. an understatement if there ever was one. this is, after all, a guy
who ends his song "rose parade," which features multitracked vocal
harmonies and a gentle, brightly picked melody, with the line "when they
clean the street i'll be the only shit that's left behind."
these days, says smith, "it doesn't
matter to me if i'm good. it does
matter if the music if you consider it an art form, for better or worse is
we'll leave that for someone who uses
bigger words in heftier tomes to
decide. for now, let's just take a look at either/or, which is something
of a departure for smith. where his previous record was in introspective
affair in both lyric and music smith and an acoustic guitar, for the most
part either/or opens up in most respects. there's far more instrumentation
, more imagery, even more hooks (check the beatles-like rhythm-bop of
"pictures of me," the big star swipe in "the ballad of big nothing," which
goes so far that it includes a line about "getting in the back of a car,"
even the beach boys multitracked harmonies on "punch & judy"). but try to
nail down what smith's trying to get at and the going is just as frustrating as ever.
take the aforementioned "rose parade,"
for instance. on one level, the
song is a nice first-person travelogue of an outsider who tags along to
portland's annual rose parade. smith, however, insists that there's
another, hidden meaning; the clue, he says, is an opening-line reference
to the duracell bunny. how to divine the secret of the song based on a
deliberate misidentifications of a pink, fluffy corporate mascot is,
however, anyone's guess.
despite smith's insistence that there
are second and third levels to his
songs, one song on the album remains completely inscrutable. that would
be "cupid's trick," which veers from achingly plaintive to balls-out rock
and contains the most frustrating homonymly confusing lyrics this side of
pavement's "cut your hair." (did anyone ever find out if malkmus was
yelling about korea or a career?). is smith singing "shoulda ripped me
up" or "shouldn't lift me up"? "it's my lie" or "it's my life?"
coincidentally, it's the only song on
the album that's not included on the
lyric sheet. "iwas in a state when i sang those lyrics," smith says.
"and when the state was over, that was it." and no, he doesn't perform
the song live.
despite all of that, the crowd is enthralled.
they're not studying the
music, they're engulfed by it. a cover of the kink's "waterloo sunset" is
greeted enthusiastically, as is the pure pop of either/or closer "say
yes" to which smith mock complains, "you only like the cute ones."
somehow, i doubt it.