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
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."