Music

In tale of new Elliott Smith EDM recordings, something’s off

No one was expecting new Elliott Smith music to be released yesterday. But the surprising fact that new music from the songwriter (who died in 2003) did arrive on Jan. 28, 2014, was only trumped by the bewildering news that these unheard Smith tracks were an electronic dance music collaboration with ex-Soul Coughing singer Mike Doughty.

Doughty placed a SoundCloud link to the three tracks (appearing under the moniker of UUL) with the sparse explanation: “Three new Elliott Smith tracks (yes, new). Elliott recorded vocals to be sliced/diced over beats in 1998.”

Reactions were expectedly all over the map, with comments expressing outrage, elation, confusion, and mortification. But while the matter of whether these tracks are good or not is completely subjective, what might not be so subjective is what the context of Smith’s vocal recordings, as heard here, actually was.

Pitchfork’s article regarding the tracks included the statement, “According to Doughty, Smith recorded the vocals a cappella during a late ’90s session at L.A.’s Sunset Sound Factory, while he was in town working on ‘Good Will Hunting.’ Smith sang into a binaural head microphone.”

Furthermore, Doughty stated, “I didn’t seek permission to put this out. This is a collaboration Elliott and I began a long time ago, and this is the form we intended.”

But there’s a problem with that story, mainly in that Doughty contradicted it himself in an essay he wrote in 1997 about recording what turned out to be the final Soul Coughing album, “El Oso.” From the essay:

Elliott Smith was in town doing music for this Gus Van Sant movie, and we persuaded him to come down and play a few songs that we might sample. The idea was to get a melody that went through the entire curve of an Elliott Smith song – strange turns and curveballs – in under thirty seconds. And like the way a hiphop producer shifts the ground under a continuous loop, we’d shift the context that the song was in.

We got him to sing into the Binaural Head, a microphone Tchad has that’s shaped like a human head and reproduces the way a human head hears. So, for instance, if you’re listening to a Binaural recording on headphones and the sound of somebody walking through the room is on the recording, it sounds like somebody’s actually in the room you’re in.

We haven’t done anything of note with the Elliott recordings, but, you know, if worse comes to worse I get to hear three new Elliott Smith songs before you do. Nyah nyah.

If we are to believe Doughty’s words (the more detail-oriented ones from 1997, that is), this was a collaboration between Smith and the band Soul Coughing, intended to appear as samples or otherwise in music created by the band for the “El Oso” album (unless there was another time that Smith was in town recording music for “Good Will Hunting” in which Doughty had access to producer Tchad Blake’s wildly expensive Binaural Head microphone and these two Doughty anecdotes refer to two separate instances with two sets of very similar circumstances, which is not outside the realm of possibility, I suppose, and could be cleared up with a mere clarification by Doughty or another party in the know). In light of all of this information, doesn’t it seem unlikely that the EDM backing tracks for these new Smith songs, created in November 2013 by Doughty after finding the tapes*, were somehow precisely the “form we intended” when they were by all accounts recorded expressly for other purposes during the “El Oso” sessions in 1997?

The main reason this distinction is worth noting is that Doughty has been very vocal about his extreme disdain for his former band and its output, going so far as to express personal aversions toward all of his former bandmates. The distancing of himself from Soul Coughing has been thoroughly on record, including Doughty’s memoir “The Book of Drugs,” detailing his “dark marriage” with Soul Coughing, in which he refers to the outfit as a “horrible band of torturers and cockroaches.” Additional sentiments have been expressed in interviews regarding his most recent album which features re-recordings of some of the Soul Coughing catalog. Regarding these re-recordings, Doughty told NPR, “I guess I was trying to sort of divorce them from the experience.”

In light of the information expressed in Doughty’s ’97 “making of El Oso” essay, would it be a giant leap of imagination to assume Doughty might feel similarly about these Smith recordings as well? Are these EDM creations an example of cherrypicking something from Soul Coughing’s past, repurposing it, and then distancing it from the band as much as possible?

Assuming there were not additional Binaural Microphone/Smith sessions produced by Doughty, shouldn’t at the very least the track information for these songs mention that the vocals were recorded by “El Oso” producer Tchad Blake? While these factual details do not affect the quality of these tracks, their origin is a matter of importance to Smith fans who guard the sanctity of his catalog like a fierce mother wolf (one user on the Smith message board Alphabet Town demanded, “Release the goddamn acapellas if you have them.”). Longtime Smith producer Rob Schnapf told the New York Times in 2004 while assembling the posthumous Smith record, 2007’s “New Moon,” “I have a very paternal, protective feeling. We want this to be the last living body of work.” One Twitter user went as far to say, “Doughty is on a deranged scorched-earth-campaign to deny the contributions of Blake and his SC bandmates.”

It seems certain there are more details to the origins of these new Smith recordings. But as to what specifically the story is, that now seems cast in doubt.

* “Doughty only found the tape from the session in November 2013, but says the recordings have been presented here in their intended form.” – Pitchfork

Posted to Commentary, Music