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Misery Missing

On Figure 8, Elliott Smith becomes a one-man Fab Four.

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By Scott Wilson

Published on November 02, 2000

Elliott Smith, late of Portland, Oregon's Heatmiser and auteur behind five respected solo albums, is best known as the white-suit-clad Oscar nominee for Good Will Hunting's "Miss Misery." Aside from the obvious -- that the song is typical of Smith's knack for melody and better than the other nominated songs that year but not his best song -- there are two things you should know about "Miss Misery" and its aftermath: One, Smith reportedly does a fantastic impression of Celine Dion (talking, not singing), who lavished Smith with motivational advice before sweeping onstage to perform the winning song (the name of which will not be written here). Two, Smith doesn't like to talk about any of that, not even in Dion's singsong French-Canadian accent.

Smith is two albums beyond the song that should rightfully, if eerily, cling to Good Will Hunting actress and part-time rock star groupie Minnie Driver instead of him. Besides, as far as soundtrack contributions go, the one that better sums up Smith's gifts is on the American Beauty disc. Intrigued by the challenge of replicating the four vocal parts of The Beatles' "Because," Smith recorded his first Fab Four cover for the suburban allegory. His version suffers from the commendable curse of brilliant mimicry; it's just wonderful enough to make you want to pull out the original, but it's also compelling enough on its own to encourage you to check out Smith.

It was The Beatles' White Album that first captured Smith's ear as a child. The influence has become increasingly apparent, as Smith's sound has evolved from Nick Drake-style ruminations that carry a haunting bare-walls echo to carefully layered pastiches, mostly of Smith on Smith. (But for some bass and drum parts and, of course, an orchestra here and there, this year's Figure 8 is another solo affair -- all Smith all the time.) His double-tracked vocals are pure John Lennon. And for Smith's second big-label venture, he recorded some of the album at Abbey Road Studio in London.

"We recorded five songs there, three of which are on the album," Smith says by telephone from California. (Before and since the release of Figure 8, Smith has been on the road constantly.) "It wasn't a serious idea at first. But the label picked it up and organized it. For some bizarre reason, they took our idea seriously, and a week later, I was at Abbey Road."

Like the most famous Abbey Road patrons, Smith prefers to cut songs from start to finish. "I don't think doing one song at a time is the norm anymore," Smith says. "Usually people do all the drum and bass tracks first. But aside from making up songs, the recording process is my favorite thing to do, and I prefer that the album sound coherent by recording that way."

Smith minds Beatles comparisons -- or observations that the group's influence is plain -- less than talk about "Miss Misery." And in his way, he's better at sounding 1965 than, say, Oasis. "I like double-tracking quite a bit. It's artificial, but not as much as Pro Tools and pitch correction, which put such a high gloss on everything that it doesn't sound real." As with Lennon, Smith is attracted to the process that duplicates his vocal lead a split second apart because his voice holds little appeal to him. "I don't really like to listen to myself singing," he says. "But it's hard for me to imagine anyone digging their own voice." Elliott, Celine; Celine, Elliott.

In the studio, the multi-instrumentalist Smith might be more like Paul McCartney. "Definitely the drums are my favorite (nonguitar) part to play," he says enthusiastically. (Contrary to the mopey image he's been yoked with since his somber albums first charmed the music press, Smith is capable of expressing zeal.) "It's the prize position of a rock band, and really fun. I couldn't do it in someone else's band, and I'm no connoisseur, but I appreciate drummers who play inside the song and recognize that there is a song happening."

Also like McCartney, Smith is a mostly self-taught (one year of lessons as a boy) piano player who struggles to read music. "I can read one note at a time. I have to count up the lines, so I can't do a George Martin thing and read a score." Still, Smith is credited with the string arrangements that gird some of Figure 8's finest moments. "I play it on the piano or something and give it to an orchestrator," he says. "I was happy when it turned out like I pictured. I'm not too shy about asserting myself, though. String sessions are really short and very expensive. If I hear something that's not right, I get on the talkback right away and tell the conductor. Those players are used to last-minute changes. It's their job. So I don't think they sit there resenting some little smart-ass rock and roller."

Not that Smith has rocked out much since Heatmiser disbanded. Smith's writing, especially on his first two records, stands out sharply against the bracing attack of his old group. The only evidence of Smith's dark sense of whimsy was the band's name, taken from the singing anti-Christmas curmudgeon Heatmiser of Rankin/Bass' animated special The Year Without a Santa Claus. (Rankin/Bass was the studio behind the 1960s classic Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. "The Heatmiser Song," originally sung by Dick Shawn, has been covered by bands with tougher sensibilities than Smith's former band, but Smith's is the more enduring tribute.) "It's hard to come by a good band name," Smith explains. "It seemed amusing at the time, and it was my idea. We were sitting around watching one of those animated Christmas shows and it seemed like a good idea. But with any band name, eventually you're like, 'If I hear that one more time ...'"

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