This week we are paying tribute to one of the more recent tragic figures in rock music, Elliot Smith. Smith got his start with the band Heatmiser, and then went on to an influential solo career, playing delicate songs with his voice rarely above a whisper, that often unfolded into beautiful melodic pop songs. The beauty never overshadowed the vulnerability that seemed to lurk in every song. Sadly, he died in 2003, and the mystery as to whether he took his own life or was murdered has still not been resolved. But today, on Mr. Smith’s birthday, let’s celebrate the great music he gave us by getting out your iPod or MP3 player, hitting shuffle and sharing the first 10 songs that come up.
The 1900s – Acutiplantar Dude (The 1900s): This local band is still playing out, but they are taking their own sweet time recording a follow up full length to their debut platter. At their best, as on this song, they traffic in an orch-pop sound that lies between the urbane Belle and Sebastian and more retro outfits like The Ladybug Transistor. Please put another album out soon, guys (and gals).
Porter Wagoner with Merle Haggard – I Haven’t Learned a Thing (The Essential Porter Wagoner): A cautionary tale from Porter, joined by Merle Haggard, of a boy who played songs in church but ignored the message, becoming a drinkin’, sinnin’ musician. What makes this duet odd is that suddenly, during the second verse, Merle starts singing, with Porter narrating the same lyrics over Merle’s vocal. What I find most interesting is that whatever lessons there are in the Bible, I don’t recall any strong anti-alcohol messages. But if this song saved one person from a life of alcoholism, it was well worth it.
The Move – Mist on a Monday (Movements: 30th Anniversary Anthology): This is very proper baroque British psych pop with woodwinds and dainty keyboards and strings and stuff. It was just a couple of steps from this song to the formation of Electric Light Orchestra.
Sparks – The Lady Is Lingering (Indiscreet): Indiscreet was Sparks’ Sgt. Peppers. The Mael brothers collaborated with legendary producer Tony Visconti on an album with lots of orchestration and augmentation, with the Maels trying on a lot of new styles. In comparison to most of the album, this song is incredibly conventional – just a catchy mid-tempo guitar track. Which, in its own way, makes it the most unconventional song on this delightful album.
Empire – Electric Guitar (Expensive Sound): This band was led by Bob Andrews, formerly of Generation X. The music certainly has roots in the classic catchy punk of that band, but there are some darker post-post punk overtones. This song could certainly have been an anthem for Billy Idol to wave his fist to, but it is subtler, as the guitar (which is awesome on this song) is celebrated with suspicion.
The Lackloves – Hallmark Stars (Take a Seat) (Cathedral Square Park): Mike Jarvis is a master of retro pop songs that evoke the best of the lighter side of ‘60s (and even ‘50s) rock. This song has some majestic power pop jangly power chords that set up the Buddy Holly-meets-The Beau Brummels verses. Then the song downshifts into the sweet chorus – it’s dynamics in reverse. The harmonies also kick ass. These guys still play Milwaukee from time-to-time and are always worth seeing.
Mott The Hoople – Sweet Jane (All The Young Dudes): Around the time David Bowie was producing Mott and giving them commercial viability, he was also working with Lou Reed. Perhaps Ian Hunter and crew already knew of this Velvet Underground classic, but, if not, then Ziggy Stardust surely turned them onto it. Mott doesn’t mess around with the arrangement, and Hunter turns in his usual bang up glam-Dylan lead vocal to make this version, to some people, the definitive one.
Pernice Brothers – Goodbye, Killer (Goodbye, Killer): The new Pernice album has more of a spontaneous feeling and Joe’s vocals are a bit looser (it’s a subtle difference). This is very noticeable on the title cut. This jaunty acoustic number sounds a little bit like an old Faces number, mixing with a typically buttery smooth Pernice melody. Very nice.
Santigold – Shove It (Santigold): Santi White’s debut album is such a great summer pop record, mixing everything from new wavey pop to R & B to reggae inflected songs such as this put down song. Alas, until she follows up this platter, we’ll have to live with this LP for one more summer.
Bob Seger – Shame on the Moon (Greatest Hits II): This is probably the song that Bob lifted the melody for “Fire Lake” from and Bob felt guilty, so he had a hit with this too. This was originally written and recorded by country singer Rodney Crowell, who was, for many years, Roseanne Cash’s husband. While some folks look at this as MOR cheese, this is one hell of a song and Bob knows enough not to mess with Rodney’s tune. It is a well-suited for Seger’s sandpapery voice.