lo-fi to hi-fi, and back again...
written by alyona tsirlina

ad se ipsum
to himself

a poet, a musician, a self-taught multi-instrumentalist, elliott smith sees the world around him through a subjective, bittersweet and multi-faceted filter that is his kaleidoscopic vision. four solo projects written within the scope of three years are its progeny. a philosopher by nature and education, he permeates his musical vignettes - introspective, but never confessional - with existentialist ideas, expressed most vividly in "either/or", the title of which was borrowed from soren kierkegaard's pseudonymous anti-hegelian corpus about aesthetics, ethics, religion, love and sorrow, dedicated "to that solitary individual". keeping in with the tradition of ponderings of solitude, unrequited love and relationships that were never meant to happen, "xo" sees the departure from a tragic, clinical melancholy of "either/or" to a heart-breaking, stoic, self-defending and angry optimism.

"i'm coming through", he muses resolutely in "bottle up and explode". same emotional depth as before, but different personal circumstances. "the first time i saw you i knew it would never last/i'm not half what i wish i was/i'm so angry/i don't think it'll ever pass." anger and hostility protrude through the lyrics like steely rods, notably in "waltz #1". elliott does not like people sticking their noses in his business, telling him what to do, talking about things they know nothing about and generally pretending to be something they are not. "you say you mean well, you don't know what you mean/fucking out to stay the hell away from things you know nothing about." there is also a certain sense of piety as he succumbs to the will of the fate in "waltz #2" and "oh well, okay", and a feeling of regret in "i didn't understand".

does he find it comfortable being signed to a major label? there is a ravine between kill rock stars and dreamworks that he seems to have overstepped somewhat absent-mindedly. with the transition, and he has been through a few in the past five years, came a niche in the spotlight that he evades persistently. "you have to be insane to think you're gonna be famous, and you might have to be insane to even want to be", says elliott knowingly, probably recalling the spin the media put on his oscar nomination. that may be one of the reasons why "miss misery" is no longer on his play-list at live shows.

given that, he does not shun away from a barrage of interviewers, non-judgmental, but not totally indifferent to details of his childhood, drug abuse and destructive relationships, drawing comparisons with paul simon, badfinger, beach boys and the beatles. yes, there are the influences in "xo", especially those of the beatles ("baby britain", "bled white"), and there is smith's own voice, honed to perfection, mostly on the road, playing live. He is a vagabond bard with a sharp ear and a firm hand that plays almost every instrument on the album, except the flute, the sax and the french horn. having escaped loud punk riffs, associations with folk and country music, he has found a preference for melodies that are mellow and laid-back, and full of hidden energy. recorded on 8-track at sunset sound and oceanway, pro studios (for a change), "xo" sees elliott's coming-of-age as a singer/songwriter and presents a developed volume of acoustic sound, doubled vocals and harmonies.

but he does not settle for one style. no. style is an enemy that encumbers and imprisons any forward-thinking musician. elliott's songs range from the jazzy "a question mark" to the rock 'n' roll "amity", go the distance from a capella of "i didn't understand" to camp pop of "bled white", adding ambience and variety to the colourful pastiche. "independence day", added to the album later than the other songs, is a gem on its own with its astute guitar picking and a well-timed drum loop performed by tom rothrock. overall, "xo has an air of dreaminess about it. dark nights and the moon of the portland albums transcend into the sun, the brilliant sun of "sweet adeline" and "everybody cares, everybody understands".

between writing new songs, recording, roaming the streets of brooklyn in search of inspiration and taking time out to fly to la for the oscars, elliott has been performing live, adopting a neo-nomadic existence to travel from one coast to another, and abroad. he embarked on the european leg (england and france only) of his "xo" tour in late august. although fully embraced by the music press and their favourable reviews in the recent times, elliott has been a fairly unknown artist in england. "roman candle", "elliott smith" and "either/or" had been hurriedly released on domino over a period of three months, preceding the arrival of the latest lp by a month and a half.

following the highly-acclaimed american premiere of "xo" and a few club dates around the country, he arrived in england with his trusty backing band, quasi, to play a set at the reading festival and a couple of concerts in leeds, london and nottingham. it's apparent that he likes to play at venues with a bit of history, legendary clubs like troubadour in la, tramps in nyc and black cat in washington, and now camden dingwalls in london 2e situated in the most groggy part of london at camden lock, dingwalls is a multi-tiered, old brick building part of which doubles as a pub and a comedy club.

even though i failed to obtain a ticket via regular channels like ticketmaster, i was eager enough to turn up half an hour before the gig to try and score a spare ticket. no such opportunity presented itself, so i bought a ticket from one of the greedy touts. judge me not, my money was well spent. the two brawny, black clad bouncers sized me up and let me in without so much as a word. i bought
a bud, surveyed the room for a cosy place and perched up on a brass rail a few meters away from the miniature stage. in the duration of an hour, a crowd of 200 people filled the club, some standing near the stage, sloshing beer overeach other's feet in the dim light, some leaning on the tables or the bar in
avid anticipation.

finally, at 9.05pm quasi graced the stage with their presence. quasi as you may know is a multi-talented duo, consisting of sam coomes, formerly a member of donner party and heatmiser, and janet weiss, a drummer (presently touring
the country with her other band, sleater-kinney). sam, dressed in a well-worn white t-shirt and denims, rocked the house with a few punk rock songs from "r&b transmogrification", employing more than two limbs at a time to play his roxichord. seemingly statuesque janet, who came on garbed in stylish pants and an open black top, carrying a bottle of spring water, surprised the audience with some heavy and flawless drumming.

A few tunes into the set sam announced that he had asked a friend to play bass with them, because their sound was a bit thin.

none other than elliott appeared beside him. "elliott learned the notes to this song five minutes ago, so we'll see how it goes," said sam, laughing. of course, elliott played his part faultlessly. then he swapped places with sam who, in turn, picked up an electric guitar and moved to the front mic to sing some arias from "featuring "birds". having played his part in the opening of his own solo programme, elliott left the stage as silently as he came on - dashing a quick smile at sam and janet - and joined the people by the stage. the crowd was most forgiving when sam, who returned to his keyboard, began stumbling and forgetting the words to his own songs. "i'm sorry i fucked it up," he said at the end and threw himself on top of the shaky roxichord to compensate for his lacklustre performance in spectacle rather than in quality.

after a brief cigarette break the trio came back on. this time elliott was orbed by the limelight. his lank hair was covered by a grey, knitted cap and his torso by two tops, one blue-grey, another brown put on top of the other. certainly a vision away from his white suit and black lacquered shoes the world saw him in some five months ago. he moved up close to the mic and projected his stare into the deep end of the room, playing song after song from "xo" and "either/or". "bled white" and "independence day", harmonised by sam and janet, went down a treat with the punters, who afterwards showered elliott with suggestions to take his hat off on account of humidity. he would not take it off as he would not play the much-requested "miss misery" later on in the show. he would just smile shyly and mumble something inaudible in response. after the first act quasi withdrew from the dark podium and would not come back until the encore song. elliott stepped off for a few sips of stella artois and a few puffs of camel lights, and then returned, an acoustic guitar in hand. he played, among others, "between the bars" and "say yes" as his last song to the quiet humming of the audience. touched by the warm reception, he succumbed to the loud applause and stomping, and performed one more number. he thanked us and retreated into the depths of dingwalls. until next time...


alyona tsirlina

copyright (c) alyona tsirlina, 1998. all rights reserved