Elliott Smith Like You’ve Never Heard Him Before

In this episode of the Pitchfork Review podcast, our critics draw surprising connections between unearthed songs Elliott Smith made with his high school friends and the music that turned him into a legend.
Artwork from albums by Elliott Smiths high school bands and Smith in college
From left: Artwork from albums by Elliott Smith’s high school bands, Smith in college in 1987 (photo courtesy of Hampshire College Archives & Special Collections), and in high school circa 1985 (photo courtesy of Lincoln High School, Portland); image by Marina Kozak

Our weekly podcast includes in-depth analysis of the music we find extraordinary, exciting, and just plain terrible. This week Reviews Director Jeremy D. Larson hosts Contributing Editor Jayson Greene and Features Editor Ryan Dombal to talk about Greene’s recent piece “The Untold Story of Elliott Smith’s Teenage Band,” in which the beloved singer-songwriter’s old friends reminisce about the six albums they made together in the mid-to-late 1980s. The episode also includes comparisons of songs Smith sang in his high school days alongside striking similar moments from his solo catalog, shedding new light on his artistic process.

Listen to this week’s episode below, and follow The Pitchfork Review here. You can also check out an excerpt of the podcast’s transcript below.

Jayson Greene: A lot of these high school recordings, along with the stories his friends told me, offer counter-programming to this caricature of Elliott Smith as the ultimate sad-guy singer-songwriter. I mean, these were not miserable kids who were made to feel like they were loners and outcasts. These were kids who were accepted. Two of his old bandmates, Glynnis Fawkes and Garrick Duckler, were put on the ballot for homecoming royalty; talking about that, Glynnis said, “If that was ironic, I don’t know,” [laughs] but it speaks to who they were. They were happy.

And this was the ’80s, when every rock song had a compulsory guitar solo.

Ryan Dombal: Do you remember any specific songs with guitar solos that really pop off?

Greene: The one that comes to my mind is “Small Talk”—boy, just the first 10 seconds alone, there’s this sort of Dave Navarro-y stop-start groove. It’s not an Eddie Van Halen solo per se, but there’s these wild riffs going off in the background, and it’s strutting. To be blunt and indelicate, it’s essentially Elliott Smith getting his cock rock on, because the opening line is something about a naked woman, and he’s grunting. But it’s so endearing. It’s hard to feel anything but affection for this sort of thing.