by SP Clarke.
Part 10 The Late “90s
Orphaned from Heatmiser, songwriter Elliott Smith was perfectly capable of being his own, one-man band. Even while he was with Heatmiser, Smith had released two highly-praised solo albums on Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label. His third KRS project, Either/Or, released in early 1997, shortly after the breakup of the band, was, quite simply, a masterpiece. Recorded on a 4-track in his bedroom, Either/Or placed Smith squarely in the league of songwriting greats such as Lennon and McCartney, Paul Simon and Brian Wilson.
Via extensive alternative press coverage, Elliott attracted the attention of several major labels. Eventually he signed with the Dream Works Records labelÑ a new partnership drawn between film producer Steven Spielberg, record label giant David Geffen and a couple of billionaire speculators.
Immediately, Smith was thrust into the national spotlight, when his song “Miss Misery” was placed in the 1997 film release Goodwill Hunting. Overwhelming public response to the film led to several Academy Award nominations, including one for Elliott, for “Best Original Song.“ A reserved, shy and reclusive individual, Elliott was out of his element at the Academy Awards presentation ceremony. He looked small and displaced, standing alone on the huge stage, in his white-coat, strumming an acoustic guitar, singing haltingly. Industry rag Entertainment Magazine observed: “Best Original Song” nominee Elliott Smith looked like Beck on Quaaludes.“ Smith did not win the Oscar.
But three months later, the same publication was hyping Elliott Smith as one of the “100 Most Creative People In Entertainment,” described as “The Troubadour.” A month later, in August of 1998, Smith released his first Dream Works album, XO, to widespread glowing reviews.
Despite extensive tours of Europe, Australia and the US, as well as an appearance on Saturday Night Live, sales of XO stalled at around 100,000 units: more than respectable by Indie standards. But for the nascent Dream Works Records major label, the sales figures were considered to be disastrous.
His second album for Dreamworks, Figure 8, did not fare any better. Entertainment Weekly panned the album, describing Smith’s approach: “No longer a slave to low budget production values since he left behind indie labels, Smith surrounds his pasty-skinned voice with saloon pianos, polite garage band bashings, crisp jangles and dark castle chamber pop…
“Somewhere along the way, though, Smith forgot to write exceptional songs to match the sonic upgrade. His music has always straddled the line between fragility and triviality and too much of Figure 8 falls on the wrong side of that divide.”
Though his name is still quite prominent in the national press, Elliott Smith has yet to fulfill the sales goals of corporate number crunchers. As an artist, Elliott Smith is a fully realized entity, with few peers. He need answer to no one.
Kill Rock Stars played a big part in projecting the all-female power trio Sleater-Kinney onto the national radar screen. Singer/guitarist Corin Tucker and guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein first met in 1992 while attending progressive Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, discovering a shared affinity for feminist, “riot grrl,” sensibilities, especially those espoused by the band Bikini Kill.
At the time, Tucker was playing in Heavens To Betsy, a group which had met with some success in the Portland underground scene. Inspired by Tucker and Bikini kill, Brownstein formed Excuse 17, playing mostly in an opening band role in the Portland clubs. In 1994 Tucker and Brownstein, with drummer Misty Farrell, formed Sleater-Kinney, named after a notorious road (and the location of the house where they lived and rehearsed) north of Olympia.
The band’s first album, Sleater-Kinney, released in 1995 on Donna Dresch’s (bassist, Team Dresch) Chainsaw Label, reflected their riot grrl approach, coming in at a mere twenty-two minutes length for the entire recording. The album met with lukewarm critical response.
Australian Lora McFarlane replaced Farrell behind the drums and the trio released Call The Doctor in 1996 on Chainsaw and an immediate buzz began to surround the band, drawing plaudits for their explosive brand of Punk music and intelligent, well-crafted lyrics. But, while the band was preparing to tour in support of the new record, McFarlane decided to return to Australia to continue her career; a move Tucker and Brownstein briefly considered. Instead, the pair added drummer Toni Gogen and hit the road in support of their album.
Once the tour was completed, Tucker and Brownstein brought on board drummer Janet Weiss from the band Quasi to help in the recording of their next album. Weiss’ smooth, solid style seemed to be a perfect fit, for Tucker and Brownstein’s increasingly sophisticated compositions. The 1997 release of Dig Me Out on Kill Rock Stars label sold 56,000 units for the band and increased their visibility on the alternative music map.
With the February 1999 release of Hot Rock, their second album for KRS, Sleater-Kinney cemented their reputation as one of the fiercest independent acts in the nation. The album debuted at #12 on the Billboard “Heatseekers” chart. Brownstein said at the time, “I don’t give much credence to commercial radio when it comes to interesting and fresh music. They basically ignored us last time [with Dig Me Out] and we did fine. We’re willing to try to get a programmer’s attention, but I don’t intend to kiss any ass or do special concerts for listeners in exchange for play. I’d rather reach people in small towns in Indiana by playing [live] for them.”
By the turn of the decade, Sleater-Kinney were glamorous poster girls for the remnant post-riot grrl movement of the mid-90s. A Spring 2000, high-profile article in Pulse magazine presented the band as the last great hope for the DIY Punk lifestyle ethic. But, looking smart in their color-coordinated attire, photos of the attractive young women resembled layouts for next year’s Gap catalog.
Brownstein’s appearance playing guitar in the back-up band for William Shatner’s trendy Priceline.com commercials, helped to heighten the band’s visibility as well. She, along with Mary Timony, bassist for Helium, were cast for their “street cred.” In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Carrie observed that “working with Shatner was a challenge, especially when the former Star Trek captain fell asleep on the set and nothing could wake him- not even screechy guitar feedback.” [Added] the guitarist, “I guess he’s used to tuning out anything that doesn’t directly involve him.” It seemed that major label interest could not be far behind (if that was, indeed, what the band wanted).
But after exhaustive touring in support of All Hands On The Bad One throughout the year 2000, the band took most of 2001 off to regroup and prepare material for their next album. Though most of the swooning tribute websites have not been updated for over a year, Sleater-Kinney would still seem assured of a large fan base for many years to come.
And so it goes. The long journey that is the Portland music scene continues on. What began over thirty-five years ago, with the Kingsmen screaming “Louie Lou-i-e” into a single microphone in a little studio on Northwest 6th Avenue, has grown into this great tree of musicians, whose tangled roots spread across three generations. The slow, inexorable passage of time has cast most of those musicians, and their thankless efforts, into the shadows of obscurity.
Still, it is the musicians after all, the thousands and thousands of artists and musicians, who spent millions of hours rehearsing in basements and garages all across Portland. Artists and musicians- who made little or no money. Artists and musicians- always the last to be paid. Always the first to be screwed. Artists and musicians- the most out of place in the business of music. Still, where would the business be without the music?
It is not without a great deal of cynicism that the typical musician, who has not “made the big time” (which is about 99.9% of all musicians), and likely never will, views the current music industry wars regarding the Internet and the sharing of music files via MP3 compression. As if any of them would ever receive a farthing from a label, under any circumstance! What the industry dogs fail to understand is that file sharing is not about money. It’s about music.
The music. Long live the music. Long live the basement, the garage. Long live the neighbors who call the noise police. Long live the smelly bars with rat-like owners and rotting stages that smell of stale smoke, beer, sweat and piss. Long live recording studios and crazy engineers who accidentally erase that magical track. Long live endless trips in the van to nowhere, to play for no one. Long live the interminable arguments on the prolonged ride home. Long live the hot seat and the poor sucker who sits in it.
Long live guest lists and mailing lists. Drink tickets. Long live the guy with the weed. Long live roadies and sound men and the guy with all the keys. Long live patient boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives and children, who suffer the nocturnal and solipsistic life of the musician.
Long live the patrons who support the music. Somehow it still always works out to ten bucks a player, no matter what. Long live lawyers and accountants and A&R flaks. Without them music would be free and spontaneous. Long live broken drumsticks and broken guitar strings, broken piano keys and broken promises. Long live groupies. Long live fans. The ones who love you. The ones who say you suck. The critics. The supporters. The hangers-on. The clued-in and the clueless. The fish and the sharks. Long live the music and the musicians who, in the face of all odds and obstacles- make it…
To Be Continued…
SP Clarke © 2011 – All rights reserved