The Third Meeting At The Third Counter

melodrama. And [B]'Christian Brothers'[/B] is a revelation, the apotheosis of Smith, that prodigious knack of packaging hate and desolation in implausibly harmonious contexts stretched to its almost

The big sad face, rough lines hewn from cracked granite, is impassive, concentrated on playing the guitar. The song’s about him, of course, but this time someone else is firing off the sweet recriminations. What, you can’t help wondering, does ELLIOT SMITH think about when he’s the auxiliary third member of [a]Quasi[/a], quietly factoring in the keening [a]George Harrison[/a] riffs while SAM COOMES sits at his organ and lays their messy history bare?

[I]”We went through hell just to get to hell”[/I], sings Coomes in ‘The Poisoned Well’, just as he has night after night through this long year of overwork and acclaim. Maybe habit numbs the old aggressions, but then Coomes sings Quasi songs just like Elliott sings his own: makes every word count, hits hard and emotional every single time. When your backing band is your support band, and consists of a disgruntled old associate and his ex-wife, nobody can believe it’s going to be that easy.

But then here’s the Elliot Smith and Quasi roadshow of hurt and spite and awkward tenderness, rolling into London once more at the end of a year which has seen them all play Britain and have their records released outside America for the first time. That’s four Smith albums and one by Quasi embraced by a besotted new constituency. And there’s Smith loitering at the back; blank, placid, businesslike and – here’s the one real surprise – not wearing a hat.

Otherwise, his and Coomes‘ radically different takes on the brainy, confessional singer-songwriter routine have a comforting familiarity about them. Quasi‘s styling is often tragicomic; black-hearted croons set to JANET WEISS‘ massive galloping drums, Coomes‘ fuzz organ drifting in from the lounge bar at the edge of oblivion. Occasionally, he’ll climb on top of his rickety Roxichord for a quick, insalubrious hump, knees and elbows pinning down keys, a college boy hellraiser, a JERRY LEE LO-FI. For a finale, he leaps at his long-suffering organ and sends both of them crashing, cacophonously, to the ground. A crawling-from-the-wreckage metaphor presents itself, with sure-handed inevitability.

It suits Elliot Smith, too, tonight fighting flu as well as his customary humble shyness. Initially, exhaustion seems to be taking its toll, with ragged, rudimentary takes of those astonishing songs. ‘Ballad Of Big Nothing’ is tossed off early, while ‘Speed Trial’ becomes the work of a bar band accidentally invested with huge and bewildering emotional potency. But gradually, the angles and chords start working their way to their proper places: the blissed dynamics of ‘Sweet Adeline’, switching from parched solo to a great rich tumble of harmonies, is an expert turn in subtle melodrama. And ‘Christian Brothers’ is a revelation, the apotheosis of Smith, that prodigious knack of packaging hate and desolation in implausibly harmonious contexts stretched to its almost unbearably lovely end.

[I]”No bad dream fucker’s gonna boss me around”[/I], he coos, and you wonder again: how much of this can he take? The constant touring, the endless demands, the percolating obsessives, the sense that here is a man who needs a break from the harrowing wreckage of his own songs. One more time, then, and that grained, weather-beaten face is still giving nothing away.