Elliott Smith, Modern Day Folk-Rocker

He likes working in the "big grey area," on the fringe.

Searching for a dose of thoughtful, well-crafted songwriting

that's just ragged enough to betray its punk roots? Try catching a show by

Elliott Smith. The former singer and songwriter with Portland, Oregon punks

Heatmiser has hit the road in support of his third solo record,

Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars).

Smith's finely etched descriptions set

his work apart from many of his punk brethren. No less a fan than Mary Lou Lord

told ATN, "I think he's the most promising, young songwriter that the rock

world has right now. I think sometimes, in my lifetime will there be another

figure such as Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Neil Young, or the Beatles?--I

think, shit, I haven't heard it yet. But when I listen to him, I'm like, oh

man, that's it right there."

Lord's admiration prompted her to record

Smith's "I Figured You Out" for her own Martian Saints EP.


might be surprised at the richness of Smith's lyrics if they've only noted the

gauzy quality of Either/Or. The sparse album sounds as if it were

recorded with a veil between Smith and the mike, and the singer's leathery,

scuffed up voice only adds to that effect. But songs such as "Ballad of Big

Nothing" reveal Smith's ability to limn believable characters, such as "the

helpless little thing with the dirty mouth who's always got something to say."

Either/Or's songs balance their weariness with willing punches, as on

the second track, "Alameda": "Nobody broke your heart / You broke your own

'cause you can't finish what you start."

Yet for all the album's weathered


Yet for all the album's weathered emotion, Smith also

includes the occasional candy-sweet melody. "Pictures of Me," for example,

could almost be an old Chicago number if it had a good smattering of


Smith refers to the singer/songwriter realm that he now inhabits as

"discredited musical territory," and adds that, for him, such regions are the

most intriguing to work within. "At any time only a couple things are really

cool to do, or are popular to do," he explains. "Everything else is a big gray

area, that verges on a black area for most people. That's the most interesting

place to be for me. There's no bad tricks in music. For example, the Eagles may

have trashed certain melodic types of things, but that doesn't mean those

things are ruined. It means you have to take it back from the Eagles and do it


"No thing is unworthy by its nature," he continues. "People aren't,

and anything creative couldn't be that way. It's only discredited by

association to somebody, or some band, or some movement that people can't

relate to."

Smith says that he takes his own inspiration less from musical

forebears than from literary figures (Either/Or takes its name from a

Kierkegard work) and painters such as Mark Rothko from the Colorfield school.

"He painted big squares that are one color, but the edges are a little bit of a

different color. They're meant to be seen in an installation, like in a room

where they dominate the room. It's the kind of art that some people just hate,

but I really like it.

"He's painting these big blocks, these big, static

things that don't change. Everybody's got things like that in their lives. It's

all the things that they can't work out. It kind of boils it all down to that,

in painting. Stuff like that gets me going a lot more than anybody playing

right now that I can think of, except maybe Beck."

With Heatmiser now

broken up--"The band had no chemistry," says Smith, "It was a total chore"--the

songwriter is enjoying his simple road show. "I'm feeling good about playing

music right now, and I haven't always. So I'm extra happy that I'm

happy." He's debuting new material and pulling out the odd cover here and

there. For instance, at Washington, D.C.'s Black Cat recently, Smith performed

a fine take on Hank Williams, Jr.'s "All My Rowdy Friends" during sound


The solo spotlight certainly becomes Smith. Lord recalled one show

attended by Juliana Hatfield and Sebadoh's Lou Barlow. "They both sort of

turned into teenage girls. They were asking the people that they were with, 'Do

you think it's a good idea for me to go talk with him?' Oh, go say

hello! It was the coolest."