When I saw Elliott Smith perform alone a year ago he seemed only a safety cap away from accidentally overdosing on antidepressants. Melancholy and irritated with a noisy crowd at a Berkeley co-op party, Smith, one half of Heatmiser's guitar-and-vocal team, dropped his head and nearly whispered into the microphone throughout a short set. Yet even amid the racket, Smith's songs were beautiful, well-written gems about disastrous breakups and drug use. The cuts off his homonymous solo record were so good, plucked like delicate madrigals on an acoustic guitar, that it was easy to understand the comparisons to mystic folkie Nick Drake, noted everywhere from the zine nation to the New York Times.
The success of those songs has clearly influenced Heatmiser's newest record, Mic City Sons, and the group's recent Bottom of the Hill performance. But the odd thing is that, strapped with an electric guitar and surrounded by amps, Smith looked like he'd left the depression in his hometown, rainy Portland, Ore. Onstage he was part charismatic rock star, part bar-band regular oozing nonchalant confidence.
The transformation reflects the development of Northwest indie rock in the wake of grunge. As Seattle imploded under the weight of angst and dirty chords, both Portland and Olympia, Wash., flourished with what had made Seattle so exciting in the first place: a self-defined and regional sound that was allowed to simmer in relative obscurity until musicians came into their own. From these two towns sprung Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Team Dresch, and Heatmiser, all of whom showed promise under earlier incarnations, but who fully realized their signature sounds only on their most recent records. Both towns also fostered queer consciousness, an additional twist to the mostly male and hetero rumblings from their metropolitan neighbor to the north. Heatmiser, whose co-songwriter, Neil Gust, is gay, play at queer politics more like Sleater-Kinney: Good songwriting is the focus; sexual identity is peripheral.
Heatmiser opened with "Plain Clothes Man," a song from Mic City that Smith begins alone on guitar and vocals before the rest of the band joins in at the second verse. Like most of Smith's songs, it's a bitter breakup story, but that was barely apparent with the treatment it received from the band. They were rockin' out, not emoting crocodile tears.
This continued for the next couple of songs, including "Get Lucky," the first song on the new record -- and, as far as I'm concerned, an excellent reason to start the disc at song two. But live, a vocal trick where Gust bursts out with an "Ohhhh" while Smith goes into the chorus registered as rock 'n' roll with swagger. Bassist Sam Coomes apparently agreed: The expression on his face made him look as if he was either fucking (eeeeew!) or severely drunk. More restrained were Gust and Smith. The former was charming, if not a borderline square (geek chic?), tall and lean in a button-down, whereas Smith was muscular and handsome in a faded Adam & the Ants T-shirt.
Oh yeah, they were playing music, not strolling a fashion catwalk. Gust's delivery of "Eagle Eye," a Sebadoh-style rev-up about alienation in a gay bar, was even more powerful live than on record.
Somewhere in the middle of the set the band started goofing off; Gust pushed Smith down in the middle of a song. Later, Heatmiser tossed self-effacing cracks at the audience, perhaps to parody Smith's reputation for despondence. Between songs bassist Coomes proclaimed, "We've got S¯ren Kierkegaard on guitar." To which Smith jokingly announced, "This one's called 'Fear and Trembling.' "
I suppose I should have known that any band named after the claymation villain in the dated The Year Without Santa Claus would have a sense of humor; it's just that I figured Smith turning his depression around would be as likely as Morrissey exchanging his proto-pout for a pair of tap shoes.
Smith and Heatmiser were not the only ones throwing out mixed signals that night. Brendan Benson, the head of the opening four-piece, bewildered me by looks alone. Unfortunately, Benson's wiry frame and decaled shirt reminded me of a neighborhood bully's sidekick circa 1982. There's Benson, singing about girls and feeling blessed, and all I can do is picture him on a Redline BMX, chasing the neighborhood kids with a fistful of illegal bottle rockets.
But there was more to my uneasiness than memories of childhood oppression. Benson's pop sensibility seemed rote, like a white guy singing Motown singles or like a Paul McCartney unchecked by John Lennon's acerbic wit. And that was just the vocals.
Musically the quartet sounded so clean that there seemed to be an invisible producer onstage with them. Benson has a fantastic drummer, and when he and the two guitarists magnified the singer's melodies with solid hooks, the songs were irresistibly catchy. That was about half the time. Anything without a hook lost any sense of gravity. The MC5 cover made sense -- Benson's from Michigan; he now lives in Berkeley -- but without its roaring context the tune floated away.
Then again, maybe I was just put off by the good cheer.