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Elliott Smith's Rising Tide

[whitespace] Elliott Smith
Chris Buck

Elliott Smith Hunting: From indie-rock obscurity to the Oscars, Elliott Smith has become a critical darling.

Singer/songwriter du jour Elliott Smith lives up to the hype on 'XO'

By Gina Arnold

ONE OF THE MOST COMMON misconceptions people in bands have about mainstream rock criticism is that the reviews in Rolling Stone and elsewhere are rigged. They believe that if you count the number of ads for a specific record company--say, Geffen--in a magazine, the total will correlate exactly to the number of stars a Geffen artist received in the same issue.

In my experience, this is not true, at least not in reputable, nonfanzine slicks. I've never known anyone, anywhere, to be told what to write based on advertorial or editorial policy--and I've written for them all. But record reviews are still politically motivated, albeit in a way that has nothing to do with advertising. It's hard to explain how it happens, but there is a certain tide of editorial opinion, and a good rock critic--by which I mean "highly paid" and "visible"--is one who is able to surf that tide.

Here's the way it works: You sniff out which album or band is that month's critical darling and then praise it to the skies. As a reader, you've probably seen this happen over and over again to groups like Hole, Sonic Youth, Pavement and Radiohead. It's not that the critics who write so enthusiastically about them are being insincere, either. They do love these bands dearly. It's just that someone up on high has decided which band to push, and every publication in the land obligingly follows suit.

(Of course, this phenomenon applies only to nonhit records--the kind that don't fit radio formats or get played on MTV. Records with hit singles, like those by Third Eye Blind, the Spice Girls or the Goo Goo Dolls, obviate the need for any such groupthink.)

In short, the whole process of star-making is slightly cabalistic. In any given season, certain names will crop up in every magazine's pages, while other releases are ignored. The current crop is easy to spot, consisting as it does of Lauryn Hill, Lucinda Williams and Elliott Smith.

But whereas Hill--the Fugees' gorgeous, smart and sexy singer--and country revisionist Williams are predictably positioned to be touted by the rock press, Smith is a very odd choice for a critic's darling.

Smith hails from Portland, Ore., where he was in an oft-ignored band called Heatmiser, on the Frontier label. Later, he began recording as a solo artist for the violently independent Kill Rock Stars label, and he's recently been snatched up both by a major label and by critics everywhere as the newest, coolest singer/songwriter around. Smith's song "Miss Misery"--commissioned by Portland filmmaker and early Smith fan Gus Van Sant--served as the theme for Good Will Hunting, and Smith sang it on this year's Oscar broadcast, standing between Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood.

You couldn't picture a stranger place for a guy like Smith to end up, given where he started. Certainly the experience of Heatmiser was the exact opposite. The band put out three records and toured the country relentlessly, but although the albums were awesome, the band was ignored in loud unison by the rock press.

SO WHAT CHANGED for Elliott Smith? Well, it's hard to say. Partly, he seems to be benefiting from luck and timing. Moving from Portland to New York City seems to have helped him to make personal contacts among critics who now tout his record and live shows. And certainly, the Good Will Hunting thing was beneficial, as has been his association with another Kill Rock Stars artist, singer Mary Lou Lord. (He co-wrote many of the songs on her widely acclaimed major-label album Got No Shadow.)

Smith himself is an intense and introverted performer whose voice occasionally wavers uncertainly. At times, he sounds like the late singer Nick Drake. On Smith's new album, XO (Dreamworks), this uncertainty of tone is covered up by layers and layers of harmonies, but it still sounds refreshingly real compared to the last few years of rigid electronica and deep-voiced, supersincere singers like the guy in the Goo Goo Dolls or Better Than Ezra.

Musically, XO is, like so many records these days, deeply reminiscent of Pet Sounds. There are quite a few indie-rock bands influenced by the Beach Boys (the Apples in Stereo, Neutral Milk Hotel, High Llamas and so on), but Smith's take on the melodic-layers-of-sound sound is by far the best and most fully realized.

In addition to the evocative strings and horns that waft through this quiet music, Smith's songs often include the lengthy internal-rhyme schemes of a song like "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," as on the ultra-Brian Wilsonesque "I Didn't Understand": "I waited for a bus/To separate the both of us/And take me off far away from you, 'cos my feelings never change a bit/I always feel like shit/I don't know why, I guess that I just do."

Smith's style has been described as "urban folk," but it also boasts a very old-fashioned atmosphere. Like Mary Lou Lord (who once sang, "So give me Joni, my Nick, Neil and Bob/You can keep your Slant 6, your Tsunami, your Smog"), Smith creates music more redolent of '60s stars than of the influences that riddle other refugees from the international pop underground.

Indeed, the echoes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys--as well as of bands like the Left Banke, Something/Anything?-era Todd Rundgren and, at times, Crosby, Stills and Nash--are infinite, and in the song "Baby Britain," he admits as much. "Revolver's been turned over and now it's ready once again/The radio is playing "Crimson and Clover." Strange how it's not playing "Ray of Light" or "Intergalactic," like all the real radios in the land right now.

Nor, one guesses, will real radios play songs from XO, which, despite its melodicism, is decidedly for adults only, the kind of record that only uplifts listeners by convincing them that someone else feels worse than they do. Like Pet Sounds, XO is a downer of a head trip set to some irresistibly pretty music.

The album's lyrics are full of love gone wrong and examples of Smith's proudly touted low-esteem. "God don't make no junk, but it's plain to see he still made me," he sings on "Amity." And "The first time I saw you, I knew it would never last."

Smith's lovelorn songs are also full of drug references (though none as explicit as those on his earlier solo albums, Roman Candle, Elliott Smith or Either/Or). "It's a picture-perfect evening, and I'm staring down the sun," he sings on the haunting opening cut, "Sweet Adeline," "fully loaded, deaf and dumb and done/Waiting for sedation, to disconnect my head/Or any situation where I'm better off than dead."

"Waltz #2" is another terrifyingly sad song (allegedly about Smith's mother). It displays musical subtlety and the simple, compelling lyricism of all the best songwriters. "Baby Britain" has the kind of intro more common on Kinks songs, while the delicate "Waltz #1" is played on grand piano.

All of these songs go a long way toward explaining why Smith is currently more revered than, say, Robbie Fulks, Rufus Wainwright or a host of other new young sensitive singer/songwriters who haven't received the same rush of fame. Somehow, some way, Smith has managed to hack a unique and modern persona out of classic rock and folk songs. Pretty, accomplished, haunting and utterly uncommercial, XO just barely manages to maintain the critical cabal's credibility, by--for once--living up to the hype.

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From the September 17-23, 1998 issue of Metro.

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