I have to start this post by saying I’m a big fan of Elliott Smith, but what I’m about to say will probably be seen as sacrilege by other fans of his music. I own most of his records, and I listen to them a lot. They’re great, but they are undoubtedly hard work. They’re so lo-fi and introspective that by the end of them I have to go and stick my head in a bowl of cold water to re-energise.
What I like about Heatmiser, the band he was in prior to (and, in part, during) his solo career is the balance the rest of the musicians bring to his bleak world view. The songs written by his bandmate Neil Gust are sometimes as good as his contributions, sometimes not as good. But even when they provide a bit of a dip in quality, they still serve to break things up a bit, they give a little bit of respite. Smith’s own compositions seem more rounded to my ear by the band around him, they have a bit more depth, more energy. It’s fairly well documented that he ended up disliking the material of Heatmiser, saying it didn’t really sound like him on those records. Well, ok, he’s of course entitled to his opinion, but to me it’s a bit like Raymond Carver complaining that his editor changed his initial submissions and not being happy with the outstanding result that came out of chopping out up to half the word count.
‘Get Lucky’ is the opener on Mic City Sons and reminds me of ‘Radio Song’ from R.E.M.’s Out of Time. It’s an Elliott Smith song, but not like anything he ever did afterwards. There is no KRS One rapping on it, but there is a spoken word type accompaniment to the main melody which brings the R.E.M. track to mind. And it’s upbeat, it’s lively. Ok, everything’s relative. It’s upbeat and lively for Elliott Smith…
‘You’ve Gotta Move’ is undeniably an Elliott Smith song. It wouldn’t sound out of place on any of his solo records. But again, listening to the band arrangement makes me wonder what some of his other solo material would sound like if played by the same people as this stuff is.
And then there’s ‘Pop in G’ which I always assumed was also written by Smith. It wasn’t. It was written by Gust. Which is interesting when you read (as I have, elsewhere) that the two songwriting styles clashed and made the band uneven sounding. I’m going to have to disagree on that one then.
Probably my favourite track on the whole record is right at the end. Well, second to last song. ‘See You Later’ – another Smith song, and one reminiscent of quite a few songs on his album Either/Or. I’m not even going to argue about whether a solo version or band version would be better on this one. It’s just too good. He could have recorded it on a wax cylinder in a phone booth and I wouldn’t care.
You’ll probably notice all the videos I shared are really just audio uploads onto YouTube with the album cover as a static background. I’m genuinely not sure if there were any actual videos released at the time. Despite this, though, this record came out in 1996. The videos have been up on YouTube for ages. They average a few thousand views each. A FEW THOUSAND. That’s criminal when you consider how many ‘Gangnam Style’ got. And considering how revered Smith was, and still is, in some circles, the relative obscurity of his band is truly surprising. Sure, they split up when Mic City Sons came out; they split up right on the peak of the best work they’d done. But still, this deserves to be considered an outright classic. And it pains me that it isn’t.