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

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Wax Stories #1: U2 – “War” / INXS – “Shabooh Shoobah”

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It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly drew me to vinyl records. The whole vinyl resurgence hadn’t really become a “thing” yet in 2005, at least not in Kitsap. Vaguely I recall my friend Amanda mentioning in passing that music sounds better on vinyl. I think there was just something cool and fascinating about vinyl. At the time I was really heavy into P2P Sharing platforms (ahem…pirating) like Kazaa and Limewire but still found way more satisfaction opening up a CD case and going through all the album artwork and notes. I was just beginning to fall in love with music at 15; buying records was the first step to a “full on relationship.”

My family has always loved going to junk shops and antique stores (Sorry Macklemore, I’m OG). I can recall going through furniture aisles with my mom, clothes and fabric sections with my grandmother, and sifting through every junk bin in the building with my grandfather. The fact that I found my first record player at a vintage mall wasn’t fate, it was just a matter of time. At Great Prospects in Port Orchard I spotted my future Technics SL-1900 a few weeks before purchasing it. I had seen a few record players around before that, but this was the first one that grabbed me. It was sleek – all black, modern looking. I assumed it was incredibly high quality just by its appearance. I worked out a deal with my mom that summer to exchange a few days of yard work for the turntable. After I did my part, she drove me over to Great Prospects. I worried it’d already be sold and we were too late, but I was in luck.

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I picked up the turntable and a pair of cheap $10 speakers (I only remember the price because I kept the highlighter pink tag on them for years) and headed toward the counter. Right near the register was a display of records. I figured it wouldn’t make much sense to have a player with nothing to play on it. I sifted through the bins, going through a lot of Christmas albums and Barbara Streisand Compilations, and looked for anything that I thought would sound good.

First I spotted U2’s War. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb had just came out in 2004 and was constantly in my CD player. I had just begun listening to their back catalog after some recommendations and history lessons about the band from my dad. I took out War and inspected the track list. Side A, Song 1: “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Sold. I loved that song and that was enough for me to justify buying it without knowing any of the other songs on the album.

I thought this was a solid enough purchase and almost called it quits on my first digging expedition until I saw INXS’ Shabooh Shoobah. It’s a bit embarrassing, but I was only familiar because my family was really into the “American Idol” rock-rip-off reality show “Rockstar: INXS.” The show featured the remaining members of the band seeking a new lead vocalist to replace the deceased Michael Hutchence. I thought this was the coolest show to ever be on t.v. Every week I could hear people sing not just INXS songs, but also other real rock songs with songs by real rock bands like Queen, Nirvana, and Creed (my tastes were still being developed – see my dissection of Chad Kroeger). Regardless, I had just started going through INXS’ discography as well and idolized them as “one of the few, great 80s groups.” I wasn’t really familiar with the songs on Shabooh Shoobah (I was mostly hoping to find “Kick”) but as the season finale was coming up in a few weeks, it only felt appropriate to pick this one up too.

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After making my decisions, we paid for my new gear at the register and headed home. It was summer and our house always would get blistering hot due to our lack of shade. My godfather Tony (who’ll likely come up a few times in this blog series) was living with us at the time as he tried to overcome his alcoholism. We set up my record player in the living room so I could learn how to use it. Tony got me paranoid about the records warping because of the heat and instructed me to keep them out of sunlight. I took note. I plugged in the record player, connected the speakers, and set War Side A on the mat and lifted the needle. I was ready to hear music in a way I never had before. Instead, I heard nothing. My mom and Tony laughed – we had forgotten that we needed a pre-amp for this to work. I put my ear close to the needle on the wax and faintly I could here the snare lead in of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” It was quiet, but it was there.

We went back to Great Prospects and picked up a cheap pre-amp and I got myself set up in my room. Late that night, when I would usually be on the computer chatting with my friends or writing back and forth with my Internet friends on message boards, I stayed in my room and played each record back-to-back till 3 a.m. I played it quietly because my parents were sleeping in their room and Tony’s room was right next to mine. Even though one of the speakers kept cutting out and the volume was so low that there was probably not discernible difference from my mp3s, I swore it sounded so much better than anything I’d ever heard before.

I favored “Seconds” and “New Year’s Day” on War most of the night, as I followed the lyrics over and over again in the gate fold. The burn marks and bent edges of the cover made me wonder who had it before me and if they had been a big U2 fan like I was. I’d eventually quote “Sunday Bloody Sunday” in a fake presidential speech for class the next school year, only to have a senior guy remind me it was an Irish protest song and not about American policies (that was the day I decided to never go into politics). “Don’t Change” on Shabooh Shoobah slowly became one of my favorite songs of all time (especially after my favorite contestant on “Rockstar: INXS” sang it, but later I appreciated it more for its composition and mantra). I still spin these records every now and again, though much more rarely as my collection has expanded. As far as beginnings go, these two were a wonderful start to something that would carry on with me for longer than I expected.

Next Week: David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Wondering what “Wax Stories” is all about? Read my introduction post.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @DustyEffinHenry