By Mark Guarino
Seventy-five minutes may just be warm-up time for some bands, but for Elliott Smith, it’s a day’s work. That’s because his songs are brief as they are beatific. At Metro Thursday, the first of two sold-out nights, Smith’s demonstrated such slim economy can be as nourishing as anything twice its length.
Smith’s odd role as the anti-rock star who records for the mammoth Dreamworks Records was evident — he kept stage chatter to the minimum and was the epitome of the shy shoegazer when he sang. It suited more his early days when he recorded for a stridently indie label called Kill Rock Stars and earned a cult audience who clung to his melancholy lyrics and rich pop melodies.
That was before the mainstream called and his songs appeared on the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack and, in 1998, Smith became a best song Oscar contender — and performer — alongside those other two bastions of punk rock ethos, Celine Dion and Trisha Yearwood.
As much as a Dreamworks artist can, Smith has ducked back to obscurity again, really never changing his abstract lyricism or peaceful singing style. At Metro, it was unlikely a Celine Dion fan would understand why such lush, uptempo songs would be sung, as Smith did, with such a quiet, sleepy mumble.
His songs are packed with so much in so little time, they tend to, as one song title warns, “Bottle Up and Explode!” A new song, “Everything Means Nothing To Me” began as a piece for piano and voice until the band swept in, raising it to further heights. While Smith sang the title phrase repeatedly, bassist Sam Coomes shadowed his voice and the two combined created a both beautiful and wounded trance.
Unlike past visits to town, Smith’s band included a keyboardist who fleshed out songs like “Sweet Adeline,” “Son of Sam,” and “In the Lost and Found.” There was an almost childlike innocence to the arrangements, which involved both a chugging guitar and a plunking piano. It’s a hybrid that has earned Smith countless Beatles comparisons, although the Beatles he has more in common with is the darker, hazier end of the Fabs.
For an encore he played George Harrison’s “I Me Mine” from the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” As drummer Rebecca Cole and Martyn Leaper of the opening band The Minders helped shout out the nonsense chorus, it fit with Smith’s idea that pop music is best when it celebrates abstraction, not convention.
From Portland, The Minders banged out steely pop in their opening set, reminiscent of the “Happy Jack” era of The Who.