Elliott Smith

Catching Up On The Week (Oct. 9 Edition)

Some #longreads that have been carefully selected for your reading pleasure…

We have spent the week blasting Deafheaven’s excellent new album, New Bermuda, over and over again.  Before you read our review of the album next week, we recommend you check out this interview with the band from VH-1, which goes into great detail about the making of the follow-up to the universally-acclaimed Sunbather.

Before Elliott Smith became a beloved solo artist, his music career began as a member of the up-and-coming Portland rock band Heatmiser.  Though the group is largely seen as a footnote to Smith’s career, they had a solid career in their own right, and are set to be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame this weekend.  David Greenwald of The Oregonian catches up for a rare interview with the other members of Heatmiser for a look back at their career.

Alan Sparhawk from Low talks to The Skinny in a deeply personal interview, and reveals among other things the meaning behind the title Ones and Sixes.  For the record, we were on the right track with our guess about minimums and maximums in our review of the album, though we were off on the specific reference.  Another follow-up worth checking out is this Vox interview with John Seabrook, author of The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, which provides additional anecdotes about the mysterious mega-successful songwriter Max Martin.

Next week sees the release of Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier, and Bradford Cox once again provides an entertaining interview, this time with Observer.

Finally, we have our usual anniversary pieces.  First, Allmusic interviews singer Ed Kowalczyk about his former band Live’s massively successful Throwing Copper, and about his current solo acoustic tour in celebration of the album.  We are guessing that many of you did not realize that Ed had left the group, and to be honest, we did not know this either.  Then you can finish up with this look back at another huge album from 1995, Tragic Kingdom from No Doubt.  If anything, this gives you a chance to sing “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak” in your bedroom as loud as you can.

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Rust Is Just Right In LA

Figure 8 mural, 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.

Figure 8 mural, 4334 W. Sunset Blvd.

We at Rust Is Just Right are making a brief trip to Los Angeles this week, and despite the fact that no one can question the impact that the city has had in the music industry over the last fifty or so years, we believe that this is the only landmark in the city that is worth a damn.  A few years ago we set out to find the wall that Elliott Smith used to shoot the cover of his album Figure 8, and to witness the site that has become a memorial to the brilliant musician.  It is smaller than you would expect and somewhat hidden away from view, but it is certainly worth the effort to seek out and witness for yourself.

A fond farewell.

A fond farewell.

Review: Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell

After the experimentalism and bombast of The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens has returned with the stripped-down, heartbreakingly beautiful Carrie & Lowell, a nakedly intimate album that is possibly his greatest work yet.  Stevens attempts to come to terms with the myriad emotions resulting from the death of his birth mother (the “Carrie” in the title), with whom he had an unusual relationship; present-day stabs at attempting to comprehend their relationship are intertwined with memories of childhood summer visits to Oregon, often accompanied by only a delicately finger-picked guitar and Stevens’s soft cooing voice.  It is easy to get wrapped up in the emotional turmoil of the lyrical content, but despite the often dark subject matter, the record never succumbs to the potential to overwhelm the listener, because Stevens preserves a delicate balance through his carefully constructed arrangements and beautiful melodies.

For the most part, the easiest reference points to Carrie & Lowell are to early-Elliott Smith/late-Nick Drake records, a fair comparison because of the shared connection of hushed vocals and acoustic guitars.  However, the high points of the album are when Stevens channels other influences.  One can hear shades of The Antlers in the album’s finale “Blue Bucket of Gold” and especially in “Fourth of July”, with its soundscapes providing an elegiac ambiance and its simple keyboard chords delivered in a brisk eighth-note rhythm; the shift in musical style also complements the shift in the narrative, as “Fourth of July” details the events of his mother’s death in painstaking detail.  The song builds to an agonizing climax, with the dramatic haunting line “we’re all gonna die” lingering in the air as the music drops out.

“The Only Thing” follows, switching back to the soft treble tones of a finger-picked guitar but maintaining the same devastating narrative; if it was backed by heavily distorted lead guitar, it would be a perfect siren song for a Victory Records band, especially with lyrics like “Should I tear my eyes out now before I see too much?  Should I tear my arms out now?  I want to feel your touch.”  The difference is that Stevens delivers these nakedly personal lines with such a deft touch that it only invokes empathy in the listener, and avoids the possibility of falling into self-caricature.  This adroitness extends to other brilliant sonic details, such as the end of “John My Beloved”–as Stevens ends the song with the line “in a manner of speaking, I’m dead”, the tape keeps rolling for a few moments, and one can hear a short breath before the tape is cut, creating an extremely powerful moment.

While Stevens abandoned the “Fifty States” project, the subtitle for Carrie & Lowell could easily be “Oregon”, as references to state landmarks and historical events are peppered throughout the album.  Hearing mentions of The Dalles, Spencer’s Butte, and the Tillamook burn, among others, helps ground the album to a specific time and place, as well as provide a personal touch to the universal emotions explored throughout the record (and as an Oregonian, it definitely keeps my attention as a listener as I keep trying to spot the different references with each listen).  The album is an often harrowing listen, but Carrie & Lowell is never a slog; with the aid of his gorgeous and elegant musical arrangements, Stevens is able to probe difficult questions about love and relationships without leaving the listener in a depressed and miserable state.  It may be Sufjan’s best work to date, and possibly the most beautiful album you will hear this year.

Catching Up On The Week (Feb. 13 Edition)

Some #longreads as you enjoy the most wonderful weekend of the year (NBA All-Star Weekend)…

It’s the tenth anniversary of the release of Silent Alarm, and as they are wont to do, Stereogum published a retrospective on Bloc Party’s debut album.  We recently provided a defense of the group’s underrated follow-up A Weekend In The City, but we cannot deny the power and excellence of Silent Alarm.

Over at Grantland, Rembert Browne analyzes the message in the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar’s new songs, including the just-released “The Blacker The Berry,” examining the philosophical conundrums posed by Kendrick as well as their broader cultural context.

Pitchfork talks to Rivers Cuomo for their 5-10-15-20 feature, and while there are some mentions of the influences you would expect from the frontman of Weezer (KISS, Madame Butterfly), take particular note of the last selection, which should give hope to the band’s early fans.

SPIN provides the conventional wisdom and adds a few hundred more words in explaining Beck’s surprising win at the Grammys.

The AV Club takes a look at the story behind the lyrics for the unlikely number one hit “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground and also recommends a classic Elliott Smith song if you’re not looking forward to Valentine’s Day tomorrow.

And finally, if you have the stomach for it, there’s this piece from Talking Points Memo that is a strong contender for dumbest fucking thing written on the internet, where the author argues against the merits of live music.  There’s a good chance we may offer a rebuttal in the future.

Covered: “Thirteen”

Covered is a feature where we examine the merits of various cover songs, debating whether or not they capture the spirit and intent of the original, if the cover adds anything new, and whether or not it perhaps surpasses the original.  If we fail on those counts, at the very least we may expose you to different versions of great songs you hadn’t heard before.

Fans of the forever-underrated Big Star were thrilled with the recent release of Live in Memphis, which captures a semi-reunited version of the group performing a homecoming show back during the early 90’s.  While it is somewhat of a disappointment that bassist Andy Hummel and guitarist/singer Chris Bell were not a part of the tour, it’s still a wonder to hear the majority of the band’s impeccable catalog in a live setting competently captured (and it’s especially moving to hear Alex and Jody cover Bell’s gorgeous “I Am the Cosmos” and dedicated to their deceased friend).  Still, despite many of the high points of the album (personally I loved how high Jody Stephens’s drums were in the mix, and the use of reverb to really bring out his integral contributions to many of the band’s best songs), many of the reviews can’t help but reveal the disappointment at finding out that the delicate favorite “Thirteen” didn’t make the cut.

“Thirteen” is universally beloved for its touching depiction of early teenage love.  The initial scene of the first verse perfectly captures the innocence of that time, when the biggest concerns were a partner to walk home from school and whether that special someone would accept your invitation to that week’s dance.  The second verse is memorable as well, with its generational standoff over music and the comfort that allies find in their shared love (“Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay/come inside where it’s okay”).  And the final verse offers both a view that exaggerates the situation (“Would you be an outlaw for my love?”) and also diminishes the stakes (“If it’s so, well let me know; if it’s no, well, I can go.”).  The lyrics are accompanied by some of the most beautifully recorded acoustic guitars ever, a trademark of the entire #1 Record album.  Alex Chilton carefully picks a classic folk chord progression, mainly alternating between G and C chords, but also brilliantly involving the relevant minor chords as well to bridge the main sections.  The guitar solo, in all of its simplistic glory, is also a perfect example of how modesty should be a path taken more often; a couple of precisely selected notes and a graceful little run can be all you need to add the necessary flourish to a song.

Today, Wilco released the rarities box set Alpha Mike Foxtrot, and for many who pick it up it will be the first time that they’ll hear their cover of “Thirteen” (among many other tracks–it’s nearly 80 songs across four discs, many of them previously unreleased).  I managed to randomly find a copy of their single “Outtasite (Outta Mind) a couple of years ago which included this cover, so even though I haven’t gotten a chance to plow through the rest of the box set, I can at least comment on this track in particular.  Wilco is careful not to overwhelm the tender ballad, but they also are able to add a couple of subtle touches that make it sound like a regular part of the Wilco catalog.  The graceful backing piano, the more deliberately strummed rhythm guitar, and a gorgeous lap steel lead guitar all give extra color to the song, and make the song sound like a folk or old country standard.  And Jeff Tweedy’s distinctive warble helps bring out some of the pathos inherent in the song, though Tweedy is a good enough musician to not overindulge in this regard, letting the melody and words speak for themselves.

I would be derelict in my duty if I also didn’t share Elliott Smith’s hauntingly beautiful version of the song.  As one may expect, “Thirteen” is a natural fit for Elliott, as it allows him to use his well-honed style of gentle finger-picked acoustic guitar and his delicately yearning vocals to great effect.   The result is a more mournful and melancholic reaction to this tale of nostalgia, and allows one to reflect the story through a different lens.  You can find a more polished version (with more precisely picked guitar and vocals a bit higher in the mix) on the rarities collection New Moon, but this particular video was a pleasant surprise, as Elliott’s emotions really shine in the performance.

Not only is “Thirteen” a great song in and of itself, inspiring several other cover versions, but you can hear its direct influence on songs like “We’re Going To Be Friends” by The White Stripes.  It’s proof that even the seemingly simplest songs and ideas can have an undeniable influence and far-reaching impact.  It’s also evidence that Big Star was a really, really great band.

Over the Weekend (June 16 Edition)

Now that we’re all properly psyched up after the US victory over Ghana in the World Cup, let’s get to some cool videos

Our favorite news from last week, which we mentioned on our Tumblr, was the announcement that Death From Above 1979 will finally record a follow-up to their stunning debut You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine.  I’ve listened to this album hundreds of times since its release (and the handful of oddball EPs and singles to help complete the short catalog), and it never gets old.  The Tumblr post has the video of one of the coolest late night performances you’ll ever see, with the band performing on Conan with a special guest who arrives halfway through the song, so check that out.  We’ll see if this song makes the new album:

Speaking of Conan, Jack White visited his show last week, and SPIN has the link to their extended interview, plus a funny bit where Conan had interns stand-in for Jack White and his band during rehearsal.

Mastodon released a video for their single “High Road”, and this one features some LARPers in a fierce battle.

The first few minutes of the new Elliott Smith biopic have been released and are available for viewing; I’m linking to the Pitchfork announcement because it also includes a link to their extensive oral history on Elliott, which is definitely worth reading if you have the time.

And finally, Ray & Ramora shot a fun video for their cover of Pavement’s “Gold Soundz” which features a bunch of cool random cameos, including Kim Gordon, Jeff Goldblum, and Stephen Malkmus himself.  As for the cover itself, it’s an interesting pop take on the song that works pretty well.

Over the Weekend (Feb. 17 Edition)

It’s a holiday weekend, so it’s a fine time to catch up on some #longreads before heading back to work tomorrow.

Pitchfork had an interview with Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt about his new book of photographs documenting Nirvana’s 1989 European tour.  It’s a great first-hand account of “the calm before the storm”, before everybody had an idea what grunge was or where Seattle was even located.

A different era of Nirvana

A different era of Nirvana

The Guardian has an excellent interview with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.  It’s a wide-spanning interview, covering her early career with the band to her new work with Body/Head and other venues for her art.  The end of her marriage to Thurston Moore and the breakup of Sonic Youth are still clearly sore subjects, so don’t read this expecting juicy gossip.

Stereogum has a ranking of the Elliott Smith albums from worst to best.  I know it’s merely opinion, but let me say this: it’s just wrong (beyond the fact that there is no “worst” Elliott Smith album).  Feel free to read it anyway, because it’s always good to talk about Elliott Smith’s work.  The subject is definitely worthy of a TL;DR post later on, but here is the correct ranking, in order of increasing awesomeness:

  • 7. New Moon
  • 6. Elliott Smith
  • 5. Roman Candle
  • 4. Either/Or
  • 3. From A Basement On The Hill
  • 2. Figure 8
  • 1. XO

And finally, Beck has a new album coming out next week.  We’ll have a long review of his career so far later this week, but for those of you who don’t mind jumping the gun, NPR has a stream of Morning Phase available on their site.  Also, it’s a good reminder to note that we have a Tumblr, because apparently that’s what kids do these days, where we posted the link earlier.