Out There

Mr. Misery

More You Becomes You
Plush
Drag City

XO
Elliott Smith
DreamWorks

One is a reformed-punk-turned-folkie by definition, the other, an orchestral pop star by ambition, but Elliott Smith and Plush mastermind Liam Hayes are wussies at heart. They're the new breed of soft-rocker, the guy who wears his heart on your sleeve and aspires to be nothing more than Burt Bacharach or Brian Wilson or Jimmy Webb; they're lovers of the most classic, almost classical, pop music. Would that they had the budget to hire out for 17-piece string sections on every song or, in Hayes' case, at least afford more than one horn in his horn section.

Hayes--a pure-pop purist who has released only two singles on Drag City during the last four years--is the keeper of all things Burt; the piano sketches that fill up the too-short More You Becomes You sound so often like variations on either "What the World Needs Now" or "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself." Like Bacharach, the guy can barely sing--his voice cracks like dry earth during a drought, and Hayes knows it, laughing self-consciously during such moments--but that's precisely the point; it's the song that matters, the combination of bittersweet lyrics and blissful melodies--his voice can't hit the high notes, perhaps, because Hayes is too low to reach them. Each song runs into the next--the haunting title track turns into the dreamy "(I Didn't Know) I Was Asleep" gives way to a two-part "Party," where Scott Walker dances to "God Only Knows" before he kicks. And in the end, it's not a little like eavesdropping on one man's conversation with himself, his piano, and his broken heart.

The Dallas-raised Smith--a man who writes lines such as "Yesterday's dream is just a waste of time"--is not so self-contained as Hayes: Where More You is barely produced by the likes of Steve Albini, XO is an opulent record layered with string sections and whispering guitars and electric pianos and soft-stomping drums. Producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock turn Pet Sounds into a post-folk-rock epic, using Smith's fragile compositions as nothing more than shells upon which to coat their studio white chocolate. But they're not so sickly sweet: Songs such as the opening "Sweet Adeline" (in which Smith is looking for "any situation where I'm better off than dead"), "Oh Well, Okay," "Baby Britain," and the sumptuous closer "I Didn't Understand" (with its swelling harmonies) offer proof that there's a fine line between sadness and exhilaration. They can move you to tears, and then leave you with a smile.

--Robert Wilonsky

 
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