The Over/Under: Elliott Smith

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Corey duBrowa can clearly remember two pivot points in the career of Elliott Smith: the first solo show he attended (Sept. 17, 1994, at a long-forgotten Portland, Ore., all-ages venue called Umbra Penumbra, where Smith played a combination of acoustic Heatmiser material and some new songs that would later appear on solo debut Roman Candle) and Smith’s posthumous Portland memorial (Oct. 25, 2003; the event and everything leading up to it was first published by MAGNET as a free-form essay called “The Moon Is A Lightbulb Breaking”). Throughout his career, Smith recorded way more material than ever made it to the public’s ear, some of which comprises the “underrated” portion of this week’s The Over/Under. The rest of which, we eagerly await …

:: The Five Most Overrated Elliott Smith Songs
1. “Miss Misery” (1997)

This Good Will Hunting centerpiece was the one Elliott Smith song your mom could be counted upon to know, thanks in part to his somewhat shaky appearance during the Oscars, performing the tune in an out-of-character white Prada suit and standing between Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood to take bows afterward (an experience Smith characterized as “very strange, but it was fun to walk around on the moon for a day”). But I’m not hating on “Miss Misery” just because of its relative fame. There’s actually a lot about this song to appreciate: its clever lyrical turn (is Smith talking about his love of/need for melancholy or a woman so perpetually unhappy she’s known to him as Miss Misery?), one of his patented key changes at the bridge, an ungodly amount of sweat equity invested in it since recording an early demo at Larry Crane’s Jackpot! Studios (which can be heard in a different key and with different lyrics on 2007 compilation New Moon). Unfortunately, there’s just not all that much to love. With Smith’s music, the distance between appreciation and affection, especially later in his career, would prove to be crucial.

2. “Son Of Sam” (2000)
Figure 8, Smith’s second major-label album, was recorded, in part, at Abbey Road Studios and featured a more detailed, lush set of sonic surfaces than his sparser, early material. While some songs on the album benefited greatly from this treatment (“Everything Reminds Me Of Her,” “I Better Be Quiet Now”), “Son Of Sam”—the album’s second single and used to soundtrack the Tim Robbins cinematic backflop Antitrust—isn’t one of them. Despite its title, the song isn’t about serial killer David Berkowitz; like much of Smith’s work, it’s impressionistic, drawing together images of creativity (Hindu god Shiva) and destruction (the Shining Path) to disorienting effect. Having heard early solo acoustic versions of the song sans its ornamentation (honky-tonk pianos, a distorted electric-guitar orchestra, bashing, up-front percussion), it’s clear that Smith was struggling to walk a fine line between the small-scale charm of his first recordings and the ambition associated with his king-sized talent. Not to mention DreamWorks’ vision for how to best realize it.

3. “Baby Britain” (1998)
Perhaps Smith’s former bandmate, Heatmiser singer/guitarist Neil Gust, put it best when we both participated in a National Public Radio program commemorating the fifth anniversary of Smith’s death: “After [1997’s Either/Or], I start to hear Elliott using his songs to attack himself and other people as his problems with alcohol and drugs—and the way he wrestled with himself—became more and more the stuff he was writing songs about. As [his career] goes on, I find it harder to listen to.” Well, Neil, me too: XO‘s “Baby Britain” can be read as one long dive into the murky waters of alcoholism: From its first line (“Baby Britain feels the best floating over a sea of vodka”) to its last (“For someone half as smart, you’d be a work of art/You put yourself apart, and I can’t help until you start”), the song charts a descent into the uneasy terrain of addiction and dependency, name-checking a Beatles album (Revolver) and applying a Fab Four 12-stringed/five-finger discount (the repeating guitar motif is almost directly lifted from “Getting Better”) to negligible effect. For many of Smith’s early fans, songs like “Baby Britain” gave birth to the meme that maybe this major-label foray wasn’t exactly the best thing for his music or career longevity.

4. “Independence Day” (1998)
As was the case throughout much of Smith’s latter-day career, this is a terrific song saddled with a questionable arrangement. I have a bootleg recording of “Independence Day” from around the same time period it was officially released, with Smith playing it live accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, and the difference between what he originally heard in his head and what he ultimately released (this version includes a drum loop, fer Chrissakes) is like the gap between night and day. XO would sell more than 400,000 copies (more than twice that of his first two indie releases combined), but the era also found Smith talking openly of suicide and questioning just about every aspect of his career, falling in with a crowd that clearly no longer had his best interests at heart. Maybe he was already hoping for independence from that?

5. “Pretty (Ugly Before)” (2004)
Smith’s posthumously released From A Basement On The Hill turned out to be both more and less than what was expected of his last musical will and testament. More, in the sense that fans who’d followed his career had been led to believe that the mixes he’d wanted for these songs were rough, ragged (and “raw, all he talked about was wanting to go back to before they polished him up,” says Josie Cotton, whose boyfriend at the time, Goldenboy’s David McConnell, helped Smith to track his final work). This conformed to an ideal Smith had been calling the “California frown” in interviews, meaning the tension between the sunny environs of Los Angeles (where he resided at the time of his death) and the pervading sense of doom and isolation he felt living there. Smith had been recording the album in fits and starts over the course of several years and had supposedly come to see it as something of a White Album exercise, stockpiling at least two albums’ worth of songs that veered all over the musical map. Yet it only resulted in a single album, inexplicably leaving “The Assassin,” “Brand New Game,” “Mr. Good Morning,” “Stickman” and “Suicide Machine” off the final release in favor of nonsense such as “Ostrich & Chirping” (a track Smith supposedly had nothing to do with whatsoever). “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is a late-innings Smith pop nugget that represents exactly what he purportedly didn’t want From A Basement On The Hill to be: an extension of his two previous DreamWorks records, right down to the soaring-harmony choruses and layered orchestration. In and of itself, “Pretty” is a fine song (if self-immolating, from a lyrical perspective), but it gives a false impression of an artist in complete control of his faculties, when in reality nothing could have been further from the truth. Like most posthumous releases, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is better conceptually than it actually is to listen to.

:: The Five Most Underrated Elliott Smith Songs
1. “Go By” (1996)

By the time Smith had signed his publishing deal with BMG in 1996, the financial cushion gave him more freedom (and time) to write. “You can see it in the reels for the music for the two albums,” says longtime friend/Smith-family musical archivist Crane. “There were three total reels for Elliott Smith and something like eight for Either/Or, some crazy jump in productivity. He was able to stop mudding drywall—or whatever work he was doing—and start writing and recording all the time.” Either/Or outtake “Go By” (later included on New Moon) is a flat-out classic completely of a piece with what ended up on the album’s final running order and soars on the strength of delicately interwoven melodies, carefully constructed lyrics (“You live up in your head, scared of every little noise/Someone’s always breaking in accidentally, using nothing but their voice”) and a chorus as heartbreakingly sad as anything in his catalog. My favorite Smith song by a country mile and one of the few I never saw him perform live.

2. “St. Ides Heaven” (1995)
I’ll let Richmond Fontaine frontman/Portland author Willy Vlautin take over for a moment: “[Elliott Smith] always makes me think about walking around in Portland at night. I’d be wandering through these neighborhoods wondering, ‘How do you get to the point where you have kids, a boat, you love your wife, you have this really nice house? Well, how does a guy get there?’ And I’d walk down the street drunk, jealous and envious of this guy, his wife and kids, his beautiful house, his vacations. Elliott was a heavy dude. You knew he was writing in blood, that it was sucking the life out of him. He lived hard; his heart was there, all the time, it lived where he was singing. You can tell the difference when a guy really feels it, and when he doesn’t.” I couldn’t have said it any better: “St. Ides Heaven” was the song that told me that Smith meant it, man—that he was living the kind of life he was singing about, where everybody could see he was no good, walking out between parked cars with his head full of stars, high on amphetamines, the moon a lightbulb breaking (and the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates singing in a fractured harmony behind him). His most evocative, detail-perfect song by a good, long stretch, right down to the open container from 7-Eleven, in St. Ides Heaven.

3. “Angel In The Snow” (1995)
At this point in Smith’s career, the differences between his solo output—quiet, contemplative songs that often centered around a couple of core themes, such as making angels in the snow, an image he’d return to on “Clementine” (“Drink yourself into slow-mo/Made an angel in the snow”)—and his Heatmiser material—check out “Wake” from 1994’s contemporaneous Yellow No. 5 EP, with its breakneck pacing, distorto-riffs and Smith’s hoarsely shouted verses—were causing no small amount of tension between Smith and his erstwhile bandmates. Heatmiser may very well have represented the sound of the Northwest, circa now: a grunge-leaning combo that seemed perfectly at home on the dingy, smoke-encrusted stages of the band’s hometown. But Elliott Smith outtake “Angel In The Snow” (included on New Moon) still sounds like the shape of the Northwest’s musical future, tipping the emo-centric quietude of artists such as Ben Gibbard, David Bazan and Damien Jurado. Extraordinary, and influential.

4. “Some Song” (1994)
To judge from its lyrical conceits (“Going down to look at old Dallas town,” indicating Smith probably wrote it sometime after moving to Portland from Texas at age 14; “Charlie beat you up week after week/And when you grow up you’re gonna be a freak,” the Charlie in question likely being his stepfather, with whom Smith had a troubled and occasionally violent relationship), “Some Song” (the b-side of the “Needle In The Hay” seven-inch) is one of Smith’s first songwriting efforts. It’s a deceptively simple two-chords-and-the-truth exercise that nonetheless bears all of his now-familiar hallmarks: slightly asynchronous double-tracked vocals, gently strummed acoustic chords that propel the song forward like a two-minute punk tune and phrasing that was equal parts Paul Simon and Johnny Rotten. (Indeed, the anger with which he spits out the words “you’re a symphony man with one fucking note” is as different from Rhymin’ Simon as Rick James is from Prince.) I remember “Some Song,” plain as day, from that first Umbra Penumbra show, serving notice that Smith’s talent—no matter how understated or buried in the mix it might be—simply wouldn’t be ignored.

5. “Half Right” (1996)
With Heatmiser teetering on the brink of self-destruction (Quasi’s Sam Coomes joined the group after bassist Brandt Peterson was fired; original drummer Tony Lash hastily left after Mic City Sons was recorded, to be replaced on tour by now-Decemberist John Moen), it was clear even at the time that “Half Right” was a Smith solo tune in all but name. The layered, quietly seething acoustic composition with biting lyrics (“I was sticking up for my friend, and there’s nothing much to defend/It’s a lost fight”) bore much more in common with Smith’s solo oeuvre than anything he’d written for Heatmiser. This was a confusing time for Smith; previously there had been a much brighter line drawn between his Heatmiser material (more rocking) and solo songs (not so much), but now that divide was dissolving and making it more difficult for Smith to determine the appropriate vehicle with which to release all his music. In many respects, “Half Right” marks the point at which Smith made the leap to solo artist (made even clearer on New Moon, where his solo live performance makes the song’s authorship and provenance completely obvious). “It was a miracle that record made it out into the world,” Coomes once told me when asked about the tortured history of Mic City Sons, Heatmiser’s final album. “Everyone should just be happy it got that far.”

Read MAGNET’s three Elliott Smith cover stories: “Down On The Up Side” (1998); “Emotional Rescue” (2002); and “All Things Must Pass” (2005).

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