Not The Name That You Call Me With

The year-end Tedium awards continue with an excellent, breathtaking feature on Elliott Smith’s high-school bands. Yes, multiple.

By Ernie Smith

It does not bother me that Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene wrote an amazing story about Elliott Smith just a few days after I wrote a piece of my own on the same guy, highlighting numerous things that I did not mention in my own piece.

Best Feature Article 2023

Still haven’t sprung for physical awards. Oh well, maybe next year.

I’m glad he wrote “The Untold Story of Elliott Smith’s Teenage Band,” my pick for Best Feature Article, because it told me new things about a legendary singer-songwriter whose work I’ve been obsessed with for more than 20 years.

For the uninitiated, the piece discusses Smith’s work with his band Stranger Than Fiction, which released a stunning four albums, all on cassette, along with two other albums under different band names. (That’s six albums in, like, a five-year period.) These albums show that Smith did not land on the lo-fi sound that defined his early records lightly or even suddenly. Rather, those records became a key part of his oeuvre only after he spent his teenage years with a group of high-school friends, testing the limits of what he could do musically. Lengthy songs with literally every musical trick in the book? Yes, that was Stranger Than Fiction’s bread and butter.

Garrick Duckler, a bandmate of Smith’s, said that part of what made the music special is that it was built with no expectations.

“There was no fame, no recognition, no need for applause, no worries about how to make rent,” Duckler told Greene. “It was, in my opinion, a time for [Smith] that was much more bereft of the self-consciousness and worries that came later.”

One of the most surprising discoveries from Greene’s piece is that Smith heavily reused some of his musical ideas from his teen years in his later material. “Condor Ave,” a track from 1994’s Roman Candle, appeared with different lyrics more than half a decade earlier. And “Junk Bond Trader,” from his later Figure 8, heavily borrowed from a song he had co-written 14 years earlier.

An artist like Smith drew a strong fandom, but the people Greene interviewed for his piece—including Susan Pagani, Smith’s first girlfriend—knew Smith long before he took on a nom de plume, and as a result, have a different relationship with him. In fact, he took on many in the time before he landed on Elliott Smith.

“He really did love an alias,” Pagani said in the piece. “It wasn’t surprising at all when he changed his name.”

Pitchfork does a ton of great features, but this one, for me, felt different. It felt like someone who had a true passion for the subject uncovering something new about the music that he loved and grew up with. As Greene put it in a follow-up podcast:

A lot of these high school recordings, along with the stories his friends told me, offer counter-programming to this caricature of Elliott Smith as the ultimate sad-guy singer-songwriter. I mean, these were not miserable kids who were made to feel like they were loners and outcasts. These were kids who were accepted.

It doesn’t break the illusion, necessarily. It just paints in the lines, as any great story should. Hence why it’s our pick for Best Feature Story. (Side note: Greene was on a roll in March 2023—that month, he also wrote a truly great piece on the cursed nature of “Blurred Lines.”)


CNN Logo

CNN has one of those logos that looks worse as you look at it. Which is too bad, the network’s generally pretty great. (SHYCITYNikon/Flickr)

Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” Tim Alberta, The Atlantic: Chris Licht, hired by David Zaslav, did a number on CNN in the name of a perceived desire to make the network less activist in nature. Licht agreed to do fish-eye lens piece with Tim Alberta, and—oops!—it turned out to sink his career.

A gay couple ran a rural restaurant in peace. Then new neighbors arrived,” Tim Carman, The Washington Post: Sometimes, having an outside perspective on a story can do a lot to change its dynamic, and this story on a conflict involving a small-town restaurant and a neighbor who seemed to be going out of its way to shut the business down caused some significant real-world effects. A worthy piece about one small town that in its way, feels like every other.


Have any favorites of your own? I’m highlighting my year-end faves in a thread on Mastodon. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal—and thanks again for reading!

Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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