While most listeners may listen to Heatmiser primarily for its tragic co-founder, a closer listen should earn more props for his accomplished bandmates.
Like Faces and Rod Stewart or Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry, Heatmiser and Elliott Smith faced a quandary. When a talented singer-songwriter fronts a band with equally compelling musicians, how does he balance his burgeoning solo career with the demands of his formidable bandmates? Does he save his best songs for his own albums? Does he break with those who helped make his reputation, or can he work with them on his own albums under his own name?
After releases on the Los Angeles-based indie label Frontier, Portland-based Heatmiser had progressed since forming in 1991. Dead Air and the EP Yellow #5 blended grittier, downbeat songs from singer-songwriter-guitarist Neil Gust with his Hampshire College classmate Smith’s delicate, downbeat songs. These tended towards introspection, as well as gloom and suspicion, so Heatmiser created a tense mood. Gust’s lyrics skirted around tawdry gay sex in nasty places, while Smith’s narratives plumbed addiction and depression. The band’s early records wallowed in post-grunge gloom.
While another Portland band, Pond (a deft, overlooked trio), was signed by Sub Pop in the post-Nirvana frenzy, Heatmiser remained in the margins. Its second full-length, Cop and Speeder, revved up the momentum, delivering the band’s finest songs to date, pummeling and careening as Tony Lash’s forceful drums locked in with thrusting bass from Sam Coomes.
Tensions surfaced when Virgin signed the band to a major label. Smith’s success on the low-fi Roman Candle and self-titled second solo album sparked jealousy between Smith and Gust. Smith resented being in a “loud rock band” and the band broke up around the release of its third album, Mic City Sons, which ended up getting distributed by indie subsidiary Caroline Records.
When I first heard this album 20 years ago, I knew more about Heatmiser than Elliott Smith. Mic City Sons opens with the kind of winning pop Smith went on to pursue alongside his darker tendencies. “Get Lucky” pitches its arena-rock singalong chorus and cocky riff at the mainstream, yet Smith’s characteristic melancholy remains as he promises, “We’re taking you to pieces.” “Plainclothes Man” follows in more subdued style, and lives up or down to its everyday title.
On this album, Gust is relegated to a lesser role compared to Smith’s ambitious filigrees and baroque style, as his Beatles influence began to dominate his persona. But, as a Heatmiser fan more than a Smith fan, I speak for the minority view. Gust digs deeper into the corrosion coating his mood. In “Low Flying Jets,” his guitar trebled and echoed rings more memorably than the dirge-like pace of the song, but “Rest My Face Against the Wall” dourly conjures up the act exchanged between men in a dour, dismal place. His voice, like Smith, speaks from pain.
Matching this tone, “The Fix is In” takes us into Smith’s struggles with drugs. Like his solo work at the time, Lash’s measured percussion and processed guitars create a somber atmosphere. Here, Smith’s AOR leanings contend with gloom. Gust perks up for the rawer punk-pop of “Eagle Eye” and “Cruel Reminder,” whose choruses over reverbed guitars recall the band’s less-heralded work on Frontier Records.
Smith’s simple “You Gotta Move” is followed by a Gust track sometimes mistaken for Smith. “Pop in G” inspires the album’s title after a city of microbrews and their drinkers: “Mic city sons seem to dumb everything down.” The album sags by “Blue Highway,” with Gust coming in second to Smith for narrative appeal but it closes with two strong features for Smith. “See You Later” and “Half Right,” a hidden track that shows off the indie-rock sensitivity that would make his breakthrough.
After Heatmiser, Gust formed the band No. 2. Oddly, its two albums opted for a softer touch more akin to a grumpy Smith instead of the amplification that better suited Gust’s voice and stories. Lash moved on to the band Sunset Valley before entering production work for noted Northwestern bands, including the Coomes –led Quasi (with Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss). Smith burst into fame and an uneasy entry into late-’90s troubadour prominence before going out like a roman candle. While most listeners may listen to Heatmiser primarily for its tragic co-founder, a closer listen should earn more props for his accomplished bandmates.