Monday, March 8, 2010

Elliott Smith: The Band Before the Man, or: Mr. Heatmiser, Melt in His Clutch

For someone whose solo career lasted only just shy of a decade, and who never released an album on a major record label, Elliott Smith has amassed a surprisingly large and dedicated following. The allure of his compositions is undeniable, his early albums dwelling on the beautiful simplicity of acoustic guitar and vocals in the vein of Nick Drake, but with the raw, lyrical honesty of Leonard Cohen; on his later works these would explode outward with pop brilliance reminiscent of the Beatles and vocal harmonies that even Brian Wilson could appreciate. As someone who once worshipped the ground that Elliott walked on, I’ve come to notice two things that even devoted fans generally don’t seem to know about Smith. The first is how to spell his first name correctly (it’s two LLs and two TTs people, honestly). The second is that before becoming a solo artist Elliott Smith did belong to a band, the Portland-based group Heatmiser, his tenure with which coincided with, if not directly influenced, the development of his brilliant solo career. For die-hard Smith fans, watching this development can be a fascinating and enlightening experience.

Heatmiser was co-founded in the early 90’s by Smith and classmate Neil Gust while the two were still attending Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. A grunge band, it was only natural for the group to move out to Portland after graduating. There they would release three albums: Dead Air (1993), Cop and Speeder (1994) and Mic City Sons (1996). It was during that time that Smith began to emerge as the skillful song-writer we all know and love, both with Heatmiser and on the side in his solo career.

The first album in Heatmiser’s collection, Dead Air is a pretty clear-cut grunge album; it’s raw and aggressive, and if someone played it for you without telling you, you might not know that Smith was even playing on it at all. Smith would later express discontent at these early years, describing the band’s repertoire as “loud rock songs with no dynamic” and complaining that he “couldn’t come out and show where [he] was coming from.” One can’t help but think that this disappointment fueled Smith to exercise a bit more influence in composing songs for the next album, and he begins to reveal small hints of his genius on Cop and Speeder. Speeder is still pretty grungy, but it’s here that we find Smith’s influence apparent on the song “Something to Lose,” as well as on Heatmiser’s first unmistakably “Smith” track, the oddly titled “Antonio Carlos Jobin,” the most (and arguably only) subdued song on any either of the band’s first two albums. In the meantime Smith had also begun releasing his own solo material, including the almost exclusively acoustic Roman Candle (1994) only a few months prior to Cop and Speeder, followed shortly after by the like-minded but more ambitious self-titled Elliott Smith (1995).

By the time Heatmiser was constructing their final album Mic City Sons, Smith’s hand in the song-writing was clearly a heavy one, and I’d be only half-joking if I referred to it as “The Lost Elliott Smith Album,” in my opinion a must listen for any serious Smith fan. Regardless of the fact that it’s just a very good album all around, at least five tracks are obviously Smith’s work: “Plainclothes Man”, “The Fix Is In”, “You Gotta Move”, “See You Later”, and “Half Right.” All the facets of his style are evident here: the trademark layering of vocal harmonies, often to create a baroque-esque quality, the characteristic guitar strumming and chord progressions, and the minimalistic bass and drum lines that allow Smith’s distinctive voice and dual melodic acoustic and twangy electric guitar playing to always be the focal point. Interestingly, while any of those Sons songs would easily sound at home on his heavier, electric solo albums like XO (1998) or Figure 8 (2000) which would come later in his career, they were markedly different from the solo work he was actually producing at the time. Unlike on Roman Candle and Elliott Smith, on which Smith was mostly recording alone at home with a four-track, the songs played with Heatmiser were recorded in a studio with a complete band; not only are these some of his best composed songs, but they are also some of his best produced. Smith had a band in Heatmiser, a band which he had clearly become the star of, and he wasn’t afraid to exercise that influence. It was that lack of fear that led to the band breaking up before Mic City Sons was even released, as tensions grew over Smith’s blossoming solo career.

Obviously, and sadly, with Smith’s premature death in 2003 and the releases of the posthumous album From a Basement on a Hill (2004) and the B-sides/unreleased collection New Moon (2007) in its wake, it would seem that pretty much all of the material Smith recorded has now been made available to the public. For people looking for more of Smith’s sound, exploring his influences on the music he made with Heatmiser is a rewarding experience well worth the effort. For my money, Heatmiser’s studio album Mic City Sons is an even more interesting and fulfilling Smith album than New Moon, whose songs are good but generally “more of the same” of the early acoustic album sessions from which they are taken.

Below is a music video of the Heatmiser song “Plainclothes Man” from Mic City Sons, which I recently discovered on YouTube, and which to my surprise (as per the logo in the bottom left) apparently once aired on MTV2. There are gems of Elliott like this out there, so if you’re adamant about it, keep looking. Whatever we manage to find, though, it will never be enough to make us feel better about the loss of a great artist. In fact, it will surely only make us miss him more.