mr. 101 rises up from the ashes of heatmiser
written by randy silver, taken from san francisco bay guardian's earshot section

it's a sunday night in new york city's east village and it's quiet. a door creaks open, then closes; ice cubes tinkle into a glass.

elliott smith is onstage at brownie's, which is packed to the gills. it's suddenly cold in mid-april, but the windows are fogged over as people squeeze ever closer, straining to catch a glimpse of smith, seated before them. even the music industry types are paying attention something so rare that it makes everyone else in the club strain that much harder to

he doesn't disappoint. smith's guitar playing is almost surprisingly impressive lots of people pull off playing a rhythm and a melody line at the same time, but few make it feel so natural. but that's not really what draws people in. It's the combination of the sound all hypnotic melodies and his voice, alex chilton high and naked with emotion, that really gets you. it's only on repeated listenings that his lyrics, rife with imagery that's often at odds with the melody, really start to kick in.

walking by him at the bar earlier, nobody gives smith a second glance. stop to talk with him a minute, and you'll have to lean in close to hear what he's saying. his voice is clear, but soft; hearing the words is easier than understanding what he's trying to get across. and while he's willing to give broad strokes, pinning him down on personal matters is another matter entirely.

so we start off with ground rules and background. this is what's generally reported about elliott smith: he lives in portland, though he might be moving for a while. he's in a band called heatmiser, who signed with virgin records last year*or, rather, was in heatmiser. ("heatmiser's done," he says at one point. "and I'm very happy about that.") he has now released 3 solo albums (the first, roman candle, on the cavity search label; elliott smith and either/or were released on kill rock stars), and each has been better received than anything heatmiser ever released.

but his past? that's a blank page so far. "i don't want to talk about drugs, and i don't want to talk about heatmiser," he says. fair enough. here's what smith is willing to say: born and raised in dallas, texas; moved to portland with his dad at age 14 ("family problems," he says); moved to northampton, mass., to go to college, where he was "picked on in the summer when the rednecks came out. they called me dirt."

hold on. northampton is a sleep arts town in western massachusetts, a town with a reputation for its liberal bent. it's a place i've visited a few times without ever being accosted by itinerant locals. "did you ever have green hair?" smith asks. fair enough.

back to smith. he has been writing and recording his own songs without a band since age 14, but had never played them for anyone until friends at portland indie cavity search convinced him to record a solo record. "i had the aspirations as a kid," he says, "but i didn't consider myself good."

so what changed? despite his reticence to discuss some matters, there is one thing smith readily acknowledges, almost happily. "yeah, i have a self-esteem problem," he shrugs, a hint of an ironic smile crossing his lips. an understatement if there ever was one. this is, after all, a guy who ends his song "rose parade," which features multitracked vocal harmonies and a gentle, brightly picked melody, with the line "when they clean the street i'll be the only shit that's left behind."

these days, says smith, "it doesn't matter to me if i'm good. it does matter if the music if you consider it an art form, for better or worse is art."

we'll leave that for someone who uses bigger words in heftier tomes to decide. for now, let's just take a look at either/or, which is something of a departure for smith. where his previous record was in introspective affair in both lyric and music smith and an acoustic guitar, for the most part either/or opens up in most respects. there's far more instrumentation, more imagery, even more hooks (check the beatles-like rhythm-bop of "pictures of me," the big star swipe in "the ballad of big nothing," which goes so far that it includes a line about "getting in the back of a car," even the beach boys multitracked harmonies on "punch & judy"). but try to nail down what smith's trying to get at and the going is just as frustrating as ever.

take the aforementioned "rose parade," for instance. on one level, the song is a nice first-person travelogue of an outsider who tags along to portland's annual rose parade. smith, however, insists that there's another, hidden meaning; the clue, he says, is an opening-line reference to the duracell bunny. how to divine the secret of the song based on a deliberate misidentifications of a pink, fluffy corporate mascot is, however, anyone's guess.

despite smith's insistence that there are second and third levels to his songs, one song on the album remains completely inscrutable. that would be "cupid's trick," which veers from achingly plaintive to balls-out rock and contains the most frustrating homonymly confusing lyrics this side of pavement's "cut your hair." (did anyone ever find out if malkmus was yelling about korea or a career?). is smith singing "shoulda ripped me up" or "shouldn't lift me up"? "it's my lie" or "it's my life?"

coincidentally, it's the only song on the album that's not included on the lyric sheet. "i was in a state when i sang those lyrics," smith says. "and when the state was over, that was it." and no, he doesn't perform the song live.

despite all of that, the crowd is enthralled. they're not studying the music, they're engulfed by it. a cover of the kink's "waterloo sunset" is greeted enthusiastically, as is the pure pop of either/or closer "say yes" to which smith mock complains, "you only like the cute ones."

somehow, i doubt it

thanks to rebekah