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The Boston Phoenix Mr. Misery

Elliott Smith stays on key

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Back on January 4, Elliott Smith took the train up from Brooklyn to perform at a going-away party for Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, who was leaving Boston for LA. It was a last-minute affair thrown together by Billy Ruane at the tiny Green Street Grill, but it was packed. The indie faithful were dead silent when Smith ambled on stage with his acoustic guitar to play a short set during which he said a few kind words about Barlow, apologized for singing off key, pointed out that he'd screwed up one of the songs, and apologized for singing off key. It was a very Barlow-esque performance.

A month later, the very same Elliott Smith was nominated for an Oscar. The other nominees were Celine Dion, Trisha Yearwood, and Michael Bolton. I very much doubt that any of them has ever stopped a performance to apologize for singing off key. I could be wrong.

Smith didn't take home an Oscar. But he did perform in front of a huge television audience at the Academy Awards. He ambled on stage with his acoustic guitar, his scraggly hair looking just a tad less greasy than usual, and sang "Miss Misery," the signature tune he'd written for the soundtrack to Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting. And then he took a bow flanked by Yearwood and Dion. Everybody, including Smith, was on key that night. You expect nothing less from consummate pros like Dion, Yearwood, and Bolton. But from a consummate underdog like Smith? Who knows?

Smith, whose major-label debut, XO (Dreamworks), hit stores on Tuesday, is a consummate underdog. He grew up in Dallas, and you can tell that he probably didn't fit in too well there. Hell, he ended up at Hampshire College, where he formed the so-so punk-rock band Heatmiser with Neil Gust. People who go to Hampshire aren't usually built for growing up in Texas. Smith ended up in Portland, Oregon, where he met Van Sant and released folk-pop solo albums full of skeletal moody tunes on the punk rock label Kill Rock Stars.

Before the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, Smith looked like a guy in need of a hot bath and a meal. You wanted to take him to Sizzler and set him loose on the salad bar. He looked like someone who would appreciate being set loose on the salad bar at a Sizzler. He looked fragile and forlorn -- you were worried about him when you heard he'd moved to Brooklyn. As far as I know, he still looks that way. Only now he can almost certainly afford to pick up the tab himself.

The fact that Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen picked up the tab for XO instead of Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon probably has some of Smith's faithful fans just a little concerned. His first three solo albums -- 1994's Roman Candle (Cavity Search), '95's Elliott Smith (Kill Rock Stars), and '97's Kierkegaardian Either/Or (Kill Rock Stars) -- were not big-budget productions. For the most part they sounded like demos for albums, collections of sketches on their way to being full-blown songs. Things were missing. Things like bass, drums, electric guitar. That was part of their charm. And it suited the deep sadness of the material -- the poignant snapshots of the drink-and drug-damaged, some of whom might have been Smith -- and the soft ghostly texture of his voice. Which is not to charge Smith with peddling nihilism or wallowing in hopelessness. Either/Or's "Say Yes," which later made its way onto the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, found Smith falling "in love with the world through the eyes of a girl." And each of his solo albums included a couple of ringers like "Say Yes," infectious tunes fleshed out with drums, bass, and maybe a little piano.

In that sense, XO isn't a case of Smith refashioning himself and his music to suit the needs of a commercial record label. At least, that's not how it comes across. The disc is full of sonic and textural embellishments that were noticeably absent in most but not all of his previous work -- the aforementioned bass and drums, keyboards, strings, layered vocal harmonies. And the production, by Beck's buddies Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock (the guys who did Mellow Gold), is crisp and clearer than what they were able to do with the tapes for Either/Or, which was recorded in various locations ("Joanna's house, my house . . . ") by Smith and then mixed by Schnapf and Rothrock. But it certainly doesn't come close to being "polished" in the way that you'd apply that term to the work of Celine Dion, Michael Bolton, and Trisha Yearwood.

XO opens with Smith's unassuming voice and acoustic guitar. Nothing else. Just like when he played the downstairs at the Middle East in front of 500 or 600 people a month after the Oscars. I generally subscribe to the idea that it's never a good idea to get up in front of more than 100 people with only an acoustic guitar and your voice. And it's an even worse idea to sit down front of more than 100 people with only an acoustic guitar and your voice. It's simply asking too much of people's attention spans. Smith was sitting down at the Middle East. But he pulled it off because, well, for starters he didn't feel the need to stop and apologize for singing off key. And because his fans are the kind of fans who like having too much asked of them. Oh, and because everyone else in the audience was quietly waiting to hear "Miss Misery." He didn't play it. But what was more impressive is that he got away without playing it. I didn't notice anyone complaining.

"Sweet Adeline" builds quietly for the first two verses, with a little organ creeping in behind the acoustic guitar on the second verse, and then explodes into a chorus decked out in piano, drums, background vocal harmonies, and some distinctively McCartney-esque bass. It sounds as if he had been waiting to pull off this sonic stunt for years, or at least biding his time until he had the money to do it properly. The feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that Smith -- who, it turns out, was something of a piano prodigy as a kid -- played most of the instruments on the album (Beck drummer Joey Waronker also helped out) and even arranged the string parts. To top it off, he closes the disc with a perfectly arranged a cappella tune that features multi-tracked stacks of his own voice singing layered harmonies. Apparently there's a bit more to Elliott Smith than once met the eye.

One thing Smith's never kept hidden is his fondness for the Beatles. He's even been known to cover George Harrison tunes live. But XO is the first time he's had a real chance to indulge his Beatlemania, and he takes it. In "Baby Britain," a bouncy little number about a night out with bitter, alcoholic friend who's presumably from England, he name-checks Revolver over another McCartney-style bass line. On "Amity," the disc's densest, hardest-rocking tune, he essentially sound-checks the same album. The sax-studded "A Question Mark" is sort of a "Taxman" knockoff in the bass-and-drums department. And "Oh Well, Okay" features a slide solo that mimics the tune's vocal melody just the way George Harrison used to do. Smith is apparently one of the rare few who ranks George's contributions to the pop canon right up there with Lennon's and McCartney's.

The melodic Beatleisms and the cleaner production make XO Smith's most upbeat-sounding album to date, which is a nice thing. The album, however, isn't all that upbeat, which is fine as well. Like his friend Lou Barlow, who also had a hit with a soundtrack tune (Folk Implosion's "The Natural One"), Smith is a sensitive emotional misfit who's probably a little too introspective for his own good, though it tends to be good for his songs. If Barlow's his generation's James Taylor -- an indie-rock handyman with low self-esteem -- then Smith's a Paul Simon for the '90s, a Beatles-inspired folk-rock dude who knows 50 or so ways to leave a lover. "I was bad news for you just because" he explains in the Job-ian melancholy of "Pitselah," a song that also boasts the understated kissoff "I'm not what's missing from your life now." And he tries out this little passive-aggressive gem on the somewhat angrier "Oh Well, Okay": "If you get a feeling next time you see me, do me a favor and let me know."

Smith, like Barlow, has always been hard on himself as well. When he drops a line like "I'm not half of what I wish I was" ("Pitselah"), he lets it sit there for a second just to make sure it sinks in, to emphasize it without having to shout. You get the feeling he means it. But XO finds him coming to terms with his perceived shortcomings. "I may not seem quite right/But I'm not fucked not quite," he affirms in "Bled White." When he sings, "My feelings never change a bit/I always feel like shit/I don't know why/I guess that I just do," on that a cappella number, the break-up tune "I Didn't Understand," it's almost uplifting. And his vocals -- all 12 tracks of them -- are very much on key.

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