Treble and Tremble

(Palm; 2004)

By Aaron Newell | 13 October 2004

Elliott Smith was so on-point in his communication of bitterness that he inspired an audience empathy equating a license to berate whatever he wanted. He was a sincere politician of emotion, amazingly able to write an “I like my vices, leave me alone” harangue like “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free” and parse audience pity from a self-destructive tirade against the very people that were trying to help him clean up (and, dare I suggest, “save” him). He told the whole world to give up on him, and the whole world sang along. I, you, all of his fans would take all of this in, no matter how conflicting the message, because the whole of Smith’s work came to represent a documentation of ongoing, intriguing, and entirely relatable emotional conflict. There was something in this acetic consistency that struck a common misanthropic chord with his huge audience.

Furthermore, because of his propensity for the pessimistic, the moments when Smith did sing sweetly about love, friendship, and optimism were rendered all the more poignant by contrast. Smith had so much bad to say, and said it so well, that when he could say something good it became indelible gospel. It took a decade of songwriting, an inexplicably alluring personality, a ghostly falsetto, a quiver of half-publicized demons, a Beatles-esque ear for melody, and some of the best scornful one-liners in rock music to slowly build up such a persuasive pied-piper status.

It’s only logical, then, that when a solid band of lesser ability tries to pull the same trick on just one album, and under the damning shroud of “Smith Tribute," this band—-Earlimart—-largely falls flat on its collective face. Treble and Tremble has a poignant connection with Smith and his remarkable body of work outside of merely being dedicated to him; Smith was Earlimart songwriter Aaron Espinoza’s neighbour and friend, and as a clear homage, Treble often adopts Smith’s highly recognizable sound.

“Hold On Slow Down” has all the warning signs: melancholy mood, whispering falsetto, sparse descending piano chords, remote atmospherics and “personal” lyrics: “hold on, you might be worth it, hold on, you might be perfect…will I see your face again?” Throughout the record, Espinoza’s voice plays catch-up with Smith’s, and when it realizes it can’t run that race, it settles for second-rate James Lytle. This was probably Espinoza’s “safe bet,” as Grandaddy’s Jim Fairchild produced this record. Regardless of what’s in the karaoke machine, however, waffling between idols is not a promising way to achieve a semblance of identity, and this is how Treble and Tremble guilelessly reneges on its promise of great things.

Espinoza bites right down to the bone of Smith’s trademark broken-vocal holding. This hurts most on “The Hidden Track”, as he croons “dooow…hoooown” (as in “Keep it dooow…hoooown”) numerous times. Also see “All They Ever Do is Taa-haa-oowalk” for an even lower-grade Smith spin-off. Espinoza would impress as a soft-styled sound-alike if this album could be removed from its “tribute” context. Given that this album was publicized under the pretense that “Espinoza and Smith were neighbours, and this album is dedicated to Smith’s memory and frequently about him,” one would figure that the Earlimart folks would back that up with some fingerpoint-proof material. As it stands, Espiott takes the predictably disappointing low road through fanboyville with cruise-controlled caricatures of one of indie rock’s most deified stars. Note: I’m not critiquing Elliott Smith’s vocal style, but Aaron Espinoza’s well-intentioned, too-attached borrowing thereof.

And this would be forgivable if Espinoza had the poisonous personality required to pull off the airy-fairy-evil that Smith perfected. But that just ain’t happenin’, and the lack is largely in the lyrics. On “Unintentional Tape Manipulation” Espinoza clobbers “You found yourself / some mental health / but don’t forget to write / and stay home at night.” What is this!? Is Espinoza Dear Abby, finally getting around to answering one of Smith’s requests for advice from his first bout with alcohol? A less-pummeling approach would have employed those ol’ songwriter tricks of tact, insight, subtle suggestion, and blanks left to be filled-in by the listener. By contrast, Espinoza says “Good, you’re off the booze, now do your homework and be home before the streetlights come on, junkie.” I mean, Jesus, check the name of the last song on the tracklist and try not to vomit on your keyboard.

This album is not a lost cause. The production is handled deftly and reveals some beautiful surprises. There are a number of rich, tightly-packed crescendos that feature wonderful pop smoothies of strings, synths, layered guitars and even some chopped-up percussion. Fairchild leads sounds from precisely identifiable angles and pans them into harmonious collisions at their junctures. These moments are so effective and compelling that they smother the vapid, generic lyrics on their respective songs. The problem is that the gates to these gardens are usually guarded by acoustic introductions that spotlight Espinoza’s poetic failings. His voice is pretty, but sometimes too sweet, and you can’t help but get the feeling that an album full of restrained oohs/ahs with no actual enunciation would have come off more poignant than the After School Special he turns out. His motivation is indeed noble, but his execution is wanting. And, to take one step back again, I’m sure I did hear “Lost On Yer Merry Way” on both “Sounds” and “A Bell and a Whistle”. But by the latter I was actually trying to hate, so don’t quote me.

Treble and Tremble’s ties to Smith were well publicized. It was released three weeks before Basement on a Hill and sounds like a Smith/Grandaddy studio session (good thing) with filler lyrics penned that morning before coffee (bad thing). Considering all this, it is impossible for this record to escape a heavy burden of expectation. I will give credit to Earlimart for accomplishing one of their purposes: they have elucidated what a fantastic talent and remarkable person Elliott Smith was. It’s unfortunate, however, that this was accomplished not by tribute, but by contrast.