Wax Stories #2: Elliott Smith – “Either/Or”

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I know in my last post I said I was going to write about David Bazan’s “Curse Your Branches” next week, but this is still technically the same week and I promise I’ll get Bazan ready in the coming days. Given certain events in Seattle today, I thought this one would be a bit more appropriate and timely.

Discovering Elliott Smith always seems like a poignant moment for most people I’ve talked to who listen to him. For me, it felt like finally discovering that unknown artist you’d always wanted to find. In my fantasy it was usually finding an old tape or CD that had fallen off the rack and was covered with dust – long forgotten to anyone else. That’d be pretty romantic, huh? Instead, I found Elliott on MSN Messenger.

My buddy Nate and I started sharing music with each other when I was 15 and he was 14. I’m sure he’s going to come up a lot in this blog series; he helped shape a lot of stuff I listen to today. At the time, most of our friends weren’t listening to the same music as us. We were what would become the annoying hipster “you probably haven’t heard of it” cliche. We weren’t trying to be cool. We just liked different music than our peers. Pretty much every night after school we were on MSN Messenger talking about music, classes, or whatever else was going on. Periodically we would send each other MP3s of new music we were listening to. There used to be a feature on chat where you could see what the other person was listening to.

One summer evening when I was 16 I remember seeing it say Nate was listening to a song by Elliott Smith. I’d heard the name before. For a school project a couple years prior, I interviewed one of my all time favorite artists (Cinjun Tate of the band Remy Zero) and in one of the questions I asked him what his favorite album of all time was – he said “When I think of perfect albums, Elliott Smith’s ‘Either/Or’ comes to mind.” For whatever reason, I didn’t immediately go and pick up the record…idiot.

I was on a big singer-songwriter kick when I saw Nate’s music status and I got the impression Elliott Smith was probably along those lines. I asked Nate how Elliott is. He responded pretty ecstatically, singing Elliott’s praises. He sent me over a couple of tracks. The first one I can remember hearing was “Rose Parade.”

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The lightly strummed guitar chords with a simple three note lead played over it felt elating. Then Elliott comes in with his hush voice, telling a story about a trivial parade that slowly becomes more and more bitter as it goes along. It was unlike any songwriting I had been exposed to before. Something about being at such a happy event like a parade and critiquing it for all it’s fake pageantry felt so desperate and lonely to me – I’d later have many of these same feelings listening to the majority of his work.

I had Nate send me over the rest of “Either/Or.” I listened to it all night at the computer. I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that I intentionally listened to “2:45 A.M.” at 2:45 A.M. The album became a secret obsession. I’d spend down time fumbling through “Between The Bars” on guitar, smirk every time at the opening line to “Say Yes” (“I’m in love with the world, through the eyes of a girl who’s still around the morning after”), and burn copies of the album for friends who I thought might appreciate it. As I looked at my small record collection, I thought about how “Either/Or” would probably be the best sounding vinyl out there. I had my first “holy grail” record and I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to find it in a junk bin at Great Prospects.

That spring Nate and I decided to go hang out in Seattle on a Saturday. We walked on a ferry over and checked out the Experience Music Project – spending most of our time messing around in the fake recording studio. They had a feature that would let you record for 10 minutes and then you could buy a CD copy to take home. We messed around with the guitars and played a partial version of “Rose Parade” (which I refuse to go back and listen to) and some silly songs I’d written.

Afterward we walked over to Easy Street Records in Lower Queen Anne. We dug through the crates, marveling at their impressive selection. In Kitsap County the closest thing to a music store that I was aware of was the electronics department of Fred Meyer. Being able to walk through these aisles and see stuff that I only thought existed on the Internet was amazing. I had been to both Easy Street locations before, but not since I had expanded my taste out of exclusively alternative rock radio.

Then I saw it. “Either/Or.” I could not believe it was actually there. I thought no one knew about him, let alone would take the time to stock his stuff in a record store. Shouldn’t this be covered with dust in a corner? It was amazing to final see the cover art as it was meant to be seen, and the stark back cover with the blurry, swaying chandelier.

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Nate and I marveled at it and kept repeating how good it was going to sound. I didn’t hesitate to buy it; I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance. I took it home in my black plastic bag with the Easy Street logo and carried it with pride. I listened to the record repeatedly for months. I even held up the sleeve as a model as I tried to recreate the cover art in my sketchbook (which included the “fuck you” graffiti behind Elliott in the picture, because I was a total rebel).

Seven years later and this is still one of my favorite albums and vinyl records. I live in Seattle now and literally can walk down a few blocks to Sonic Boom where there’s always at least a few Elliott Smith albums in the bins and other bands I’m continuing to discover. It’s a convenience I love to exploit (my wallet is not so fond of it though). I’ve continued to fill my collection with records from Easy Street Records too. Sometimes I forget that it wasn’t that long ago when finding these records was a big deal for me.

Now today Easy Street Records in Queen Anne is closing its doors for good to be replaced by a Chase Bank. It may seem trivial to be saddened by the lose of a business, but to me and a lot of other music fans this a huge loss. I can’t find a treasure like “Either/Or” at a bank. I won’t have that same feeling of discovery and excitement when I go to cash a check or make a withdrawal. Every time I put “Either/Or” on my turntable now, I’m going to think about Easy Street and how it inadvertently encouraged my interest in music and brought me closer with artists like Elliott Smith. We’re really lucky here in Seattle. I hope we don’t take for granted that we have so much access to culture and art that helps us express ourselves; I hope we don’t ever favor chain stores and condos over priceless things like these.

Thanks Elliott. Thanks Easy Street. You’ve both given me and others some truly great music.

Here’s a video of Elliott Smith playing on a pilot for The Jon Brion show, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”):

Next week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (for REAL this time)

Previous Wax Story: U2 – War / INXS – Shabooh Shoobah

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry

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Growing Up With Chad Kroeger and Spider-man

It’s easy to latch on to the idea of being a 90’s kid – there’s just so much to admire about the decade. There’s this ideal image of the music and culture that makes it appealing to associate yourself with. While my friends and I were born in the 90s, a large amount of our adolescent lives that we could actually “participate with the culture” was the 2000s (the otts, the 00s, whatever you want to call it).

I’ve started reading Colin Meloy’s contribution to the 33 1/3 on The Replacement’s album “Let It Be,” which focuses primarily on Meloy’s experience with music through the awkward years of junior high. “Let It Be” essentially sound-tracked the big memories in his life – school dances, playing on the JV basketball team, not being sure where you belong, etc. It seems like such an appropriate album for a time of transition. This got me to thinking about what particular album I can recall tying with junior high. Even though I listened to my (still) favorite all time band Remy Zero constantly, it pains me to admit that my Junior High defining album was “Music From and Inspired By: Spider-Man.”

Let me iterate that again. The Spider-man soundtrack was like my version of The Replacements “Let It Be.”

These days, it’s really cool and trendy to hate on Nickelback (myself not exclude from this) but it can’t be dismissed that in 2002 Nickelback was a juggernaut and most people I knew at the time thought they were a solid band. As promotions started for the upcoming Spider-man movie, the music video for Chad Kroeger and Josey Scott’s “Hero” was on constant rotation in the morning on MTV and VH1.

“This song is beautiful,” I remember thinking. The rolling snare abruptly being stopped by the booming strum of Chad’s acoustic guitar gave me goosebumps. The imagery of Spider-man swinging through buildings while Chad and the band played on a rooftop felt so serene, like an oil painting or a student art film. Then the vocal’s kick in with the killer opening line.

“I’m so high I can hear heaven, oh but heaven, but heaven don’t hear me.”

Sold. Shut up and take my money, Mr. Kroeger. You’ve made my puberty filled heart melt.

In a routine trip to Fred Meyer I convinced my dad to buy me the soundtrack as we passed through the electronics section. This was the summer before seventh grade. In a month or so I’d be going to a new school where I was totally unknown. Though I was able to make a few friends, I still felt a bit disconnected from everyone else that year. I was able to find my “group” to hang out with a lunch but didn’t see much of my classmates outside of school. Every day on the bus ride home, I’d take my CD case and red disc-man with matching over-the-ear headphones out of my rolling backpack and find the black disc with the orange lettering. Sitting in the back, I’d crank up the music and look out the window or sometimes observe the high schoolers laughing and talking away.

I’d skip the first track usually (the original Spider-man cartoon theme) and go straight to “Hero.” I tried really hard to like the Sum 41 song “What We’re All About” but could never manage it.

On days I tried to make a move on my current crush (which typically involved trying to start some sort of conversation) and inevitably failed it was straight to track 16, “She Was My Girl” by Jerry Cantrell. I didn’t know who Cantrell was at the time, but I thought he captured my angst and longing so well.

“She was my girl. Used to be my world.”

God damn, Jerry, have you been observing my life or something?

When I was feeling particularly angsty (again, usually over girl issues) it was “Learn to Crawl” by Black Lab.

“Tell your pretty red haired babe to forget that I exist”

Black Lab snarling those words over a chunky, melodramatic post-grunge guitar riff made me feel like I was a bad-ass that no one should try and mess with. Beneath by blue and black Nike windbreaker and graphic t-shirt was the heart of real rocker. I began to love music in the obnoxious “oMyGod MuZiK iZ mAi LyFe!” sort of way – infatuation, but not quite yet true love.

At home I’d put the CD in my computer while I worked on my large creative pursuit: Monkey Man comic books. I had a whole franchise planned out in my head including multiple series, spin-offs, and inevitably a major movie deal. At the core, it’s hard to say if Money Man was a spoof of Spider-man or just a blatant ripoff (I mean, being bit by a radioactive monkey is TOTALLY different than being bit by a radioactive spider). I think I played it off as a joke to people, but secretly I imagined Monkey Man swinging through New York on his vine as the bridge of “Hero” trembled in the background.

“It isn’t the love of a hero, that’s what I feel it won’t do.”

Looking back, it’s hard for me to listen to the Spider-man soundtrack and take it seriously. Still, it’s hard for me to dismiss something so pivotal to my early teen years. I may not be jamming out to Black Lab and Nickelback these days but those songs served as a stepping stone to what I listen to now. Chad Kroeger rocking out on an acoustic guitar had a profound impact on impressionable, tiny, naive, middle school Dusty. So Colin Meloy wins this round of cooler middle school jams, but I feel we still have shared the same feelings listening to our respective albums and I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I’ll hold on to this soundtrack like the wings of the eagles, and watch as they all fly away.