Short Cuts

Elliott Smith
XO
(Dreamworks)

When singer-songwriter Elliott Smith performed his Oscar-nominated tune, "Miss Misery," on the glitzy award-show telecast last spring, it was a scene worthy of A Star Is Born. Alone at center stage, and looking out of place with his untamed hair and simple white suit, he proceeded to hush the power crowd with a beautiful rendition of his tune from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Amid the bombastic pop ballads and misconceived dance spectacles, Smith quietly struck a blow for dignity and grace.

His unlikely ascension from acoustic rock troubadour to Oscar nominee is especially interesting in that he arrived there via the ultimate indie-rock path. Before his sudden fame, Smith had been perfectly happy with just a guitar and a home studio to document his work, and a stage and a microphone as his avenue of expression. He released three introspective solo records on fiercely independent labels such as Kill Rock Stars before fellow Portland scenester and GWH director Gus Van Sant turned the underground antihero into a soundtrack star.

Thankfully, Smith's major-label debut, XO, retains his loner love affair with the sharp observation and detached passion of a drive-by life. Smith and co-producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock manage to bring his music into a whole new ballpark of recording without sacrificing his gift for understatement. Smith's glistening, agile acoustic work still locks in with each melody, augmented by the tasteful influence of piano, electric guitar, and organ from song to song.

The ghostly quality of his voice is highlighted in tracks such as "Waltz #2 (XO)," a perfect sweetheart dance for one in which he survives the sting of unrequited love. "Just leave me alone," he sings, "In the place where I make no mistakes/In the place where I have what it takes/I'm never gonna know you now, but I'm gonna love you anyhow."

With the rainy-day feel of "Oh Well, Okay" and "Baby Britain," Smith brings out the gray in colorful lives. In the latter he tells the tale of another Miss Misery, a charismatic alcoholic who "fights problems with bigger problems." "For someone half as smart you'd be a work of art," he chides, remembering drinks they've knocked back as "dead soldiers lined up on the table/Still prepared for an attack/They didn't know they'd been disabled."

Smith may speak of intense situations, but he takes aim at his subjects with an eerie lack of seething. In "A Question Mark" and "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands" his voice calmly derides those who dispense empty promises and putdowns disguised as advice, even as the lyrics clearly spit anger. The most aggressive cuts, "Bled White" and "Amity," also come off coolly, as the creamy, evocative wash of vocals and guitars renders the fiery sentiments well under control.

But that's OK, as Smith's pretty, gloomy songs are not designed to deliver a neat, three-minute catharsis. His work is more the kind that lingers and ripens in the soul, where pain and joy perpetually struggle for dominance.

-- Robin Myrick

CeDell Davis
The Horror of It All
(Fat Possum/Epitaph)

It seems that when CeDell Davis went down to the Crossroads, the devil was waiting with a kitchen knife and a strangely tuned electric guitar. For the past 50 years, the now-71-year-old bluesman -- who was partially paralyzed by polio as a boy -- has used a butter knife to scrape bent notes and crippled chords from a guitar that sounds as if it's been strung with barbed wire. As a result The Horror of It All is a challenging disc full of off-kilter performances and bracing songs.

Davis grew up on a plantation near Helena, Arkansas, and frequented Mississippi Delta juke joints as a young man. From the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, he gigged with the legendary Robert Nighthawk and established a regional reputation for himself. He was mostly a well-kept secret until Fat Possum released his debut record, Feel Like Doin' Something Wrong, in 1993. That disc and its 1995 follow-up, The Best of CeDell Davis, established Davis as a twisted blues artist in the gutbucket tradition.

Even better than its predecessors, The Horror of It All presents Davis' ragged-but-right playing at its unvarnished best. Stripped down to Davis' careening guitar and roaring vocals, it has a field-recording quality that gets in your face, under your skin, and up your pant leg. Like Captain Beefheart and free-jazz cacophonists such as Ornette Coleman, Davis and his bewildering but engaging songs have been known to induce singing, screaming, itching, dancing, and head-scratching in the uninitiated. Because Davis uses the knife's metal handle to form chords, tunes such as "Chicken Hawk" and "The Horror" leak buzzing notes that threaten to wash away an already precarious sense of rhythm. Still, Davis manages to get the message across by sheer force of will.

A resourceful and innovative player, Davis has developed a fresh blues hybrid, one that mixes the raw blues of Howlin' Wolf with the spiky dissonance of, say, Sonic Youth. The Horror of It All may not get Davis gigs at the House of Blues, and its songs aren't likely to turn up in beer commercials, but the disc will further Davis' credentials as a country blues maverick wringing new life from the Delta tradition.

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