Elliott Smith: Down On The Upside

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Somewhere between acquiring a broader musical palette and bouts of Oscar madness, Elliott Smith has become an unlikely pop star. And he did it all by himself. By Matthew Fritch

“Hi, this is Elliott Smith and it’s been 10 years. Congratulations.” As the video camera’s red light flickers out, Smith shoots a wry, sideways grin at me, obviously amused at the multimedia invasion (well, me and the guy with the camera) going on in his dressing room. He’s just flatly delivered his line for a promotional spot marking the anniversary of the venue where he’s performing tonight.

Smith shakes his head. “It’s strange,” he says. “Ever since I got here, they’ve been asking me to do that. I’ve never even been here before.”

Lately, we’ve been seeing Smith in all the unfamiliar places: the Academy Awards, MTV, Entertainment Weekly. And now gracing the cover of a plush, orchestrated pop record for the DreamWorks mega-label.

XO is the album, and its compositions appropriately conjure the intimacy of handwritten notes, heartwarming and heartsick sentiments and, of course, hugs and kiss-offs to lovers, friends and those who just don’t understand. Whether Smith’s migration from Portland, Ore., to Brooklyn last year had any inspirational effect is a question that doesn’t need asking; New York City is imprinted upon the record like a silent partner’s songwriting credit, lyrically hovering in the background alongside the cosmopolitan touches of piano, strings and brass arrangements. It’s safe to say that no one will call XO a folk record.

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Lisa Germano: Geek Love

Lisa Germano has been a sad, sad girl. Lucky for us, she swings moods, misfortunes and malaise into songs that make us hurt so good. By Jason Ferguson

Preconceptions abound about Lisa Germano. The most prevalent is the one that’s always prefaced by “John Mellencamp’s fiddle player” and closes with “she’s really sad.” And, in as much as both of these statements are currently untrue, so are all the assumptions in between. Germano has come a long way since her Bloomington, Ind., upbringing hurled her into a very small corner of pop culture’s spotlight with her most famous neighbor.

“Yeah, a lot has happened,” says Germano mock seriously, “I got my hair cut.”

Indeed, the long tresses this skinny girl from Indiana used to hide behind on stage are gone, replaced with a short hairdo that nearly borders on “perky.” And, as superfluous as it may seem, those locks may have symbolically held as much sway as an inverse Samson.

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Guided By Voices: Robert Pollard, Who Are You?

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Bob Pollard is a rock ‘n’ roll traditionalist. And music fans are better off because of it. Like baseball, rock music is in dire need of a return to its glory days. It needs players who respect and embrace the history of their art. It needs participants who understand the importance of performance, and who realize that fans are as integral a part as the players themselves. Pollard knows these things, but, more importantly, he cares deeply about them. Which is why Pollard looks with more fondness to the past than he does to the future.

“Music today lacks love,” says Pollard. “Music from the ’60s talked about love – not personal love, but this universal sort of love. I really miss that. People are afraid to express themselves and express love. In the ’60s, rock was about people getting together and having fun. That needs to come back. Now it’s all bandwagonesque, it’s all glamour. We need to get back to the heart of it.”

For more than a decade, Pollard has succeeded at getting back to the heart of it. The most prolific songwriter of the rock and roll era, Pollard is responsible for more great tunes than the Beatles, Stones and Who combined. In an age where sound outweighs songs and image is more important than talent, Pollard is the melodic (albeit often drunken) voice of reason, the only rock star in a genre of music that takes pride in its obscurity. Pollard personifies the belief that rock isn’t something you do on weekends or after work – it’s your life and it needs to be treated accordingly. Two years ago, Pollard quit his day job after almost a decade and a half, allowing himself the opportunity to rock and roll all night and, naturally, party every day. And his only regret is that he didn’t do it sooner.

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Punk In Silk Pajamas: Jawbreaker, Green Day And J-Church

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Popcore grows up and out by the San Francisco Bay. By Jamie Kensey

Punk rock wasn’t supposed to be like this. All love and hope, heartstrings and dreams, melody and ache. All shucks and gee whiz. Punk was obnoxious, blaring, political. Fuck you. The Ramones were loud, snotty and rebellious. The Germs were loud, snotty, rebellious and suicidal. Black Flag? Yep, loud and pissed. And San Francisco’s Jawbreaker is … uh, sometimes they’re loud.

Listen up, kids, it’s popcore: churning melodic guitar lines, songs not chronicling our fucked-up world but about our personal demons, friends, family and the inconstancy of daily existence. It has a solid punk core but spreads into all territories of rock, soul and folk without losing its power. Descendants include bands like the Buzzcocks and, well, the Descendents. And the San Francisco Bay Area has almost singlehandedly kept it alive recently, with Jawbreaker and a handful of lesser-known bands continuing the revolution. They still wield a fist, albeit a velvet-gloved one.

“When we started, I had these illusions of being a real art band,” says Jawbreaker songwriter and guitarist Blake Schwarzenbach. “Because of my lack of skill, it ended being punk songs mostly. I really had these ideas of going on noise segments and doing these celestial guitar things.”

The great thing about this revolution is that it’s undefinable. Popcore units aren’t always strictly pop or hardcore. And though they all share a common punk denominator, they scatter in many directions from that starting point, kinda like a pack of huddled roaches when you hit the light switch. Even with the current stigma attached to the “p” word, most of them don’t even mind if you use that as a convenient label for their sound. “They can call us whatever they want, they’re still going to hear us,” says Schwarzenbach.

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