Review Summary: In their last album, Heatmiser shows confidence and strong musical craftsmanship, but the competing spotlight between Elliott Smith and Neil Gust prove that it was time for the superior Smith to take his gifts of melody and lyricism in his own direction.
I will admit that I am one of the many who have probably stumbled across Heatmiser just through an obsession with Elliott Smith. Digging, mostly backwards, through Smith's discography revealed to me an era in which he shared the musical duties, including vocals, with a full band. If Heatmiser had always been a staple of your '90's indie rock fix, forgive me for my ignorance. With that said, I came across Heatmiser's Mic City Sons, the band's most well known as well as the last album they released. The album is divided between songs written and sung by Smith and those of guitarist and co-lead vocalist Neil Gust. It is a solid set of songs with intriguing melodies and beautiful lyrics. However, while trite and expected, Smith's songs occupy the better half of the album.
Beginning with "Get Lucky," we have the now all-to-familiar voice of Elliott Smith, whose lyrical genius and ear for melody is surely missed. It seems clear why he would develop musically on his own, as he had so much creativity and craftiness that he needed to spread his wings and leave the confines of band members with whom he shared creative control. On this track, Smith is vocally powerful, especially in delivering part of the ominous chorus "We're taking you to pieces," while Gust shares some vocals. Next is another standout for the album with "Plainclothes Man" with more delicate instrumentation and layered vocals that are more in line with Smith's solo work.
Proceeding along, "Low Flying Jets" introduces us to Gust, the hopelessly overshadowed second half of Heatmiser's singing duo. Although a bit catchy, Gust is held back by the unchanging dirge of his delivery. "Rest My Head Against the Wall" is another example of this, with Gust's more grungy orientation even more emphasized as he sings about some sort of seedy sexual habit in a public restroom.
"The Fix Is In" is a shining moment for instrumental style as the slow drums (courtesy of Tony Lash) and distorted guitar bring the song a subdued, lo-fi quality that matches Smith's dreamlike chorus and multi-layered vocals. What follows is a rapid speed up with two louder songs by Gust, "Eagle Eye" and "Cruel Reminder," that are quite similar with a slight punk influence.
Smith then returns with "You Gotta Move", a simple but plain downer, and "Pop in G," which conversely sounds like Smith at his lightest and, as the title alludes, "pop"-iest point in the album. Following is the rather forgettable "Blue Highway," which sums up the shortcomings of Gust's one dimensional vocal stylings that hardly sway in his delivery of a slight soaring chorus. While lyrically he can hold his own (as well as he can against a king of that department), his delivery constistently fails to impress.
Despite this, the last two songs of Smith's bring home why this is an excellent album. "See You Later" and "Half Right" are more varying instrumentally than many of Mic City Sons' other songs and they are also the best evidence of what the future would hold for Smith's musical evolution. Acoustic versions of both of these songs very appropriately close out his posthumous compilation album New Moon.
Now that I have discovered Heatmiser, I may dig further back into their short catalog, but I admit that I have limited expectations of what to expect. Mic City Sons features a musically unified band attempting to share the spotlight, but the result is Smith and Gust jockeying for the lead with Smith winning by a mile. But don't get me wrong, this is a great album. Aside from the obvious contributions of Smith, Gust and his fellow bandmates bring thoughtful lyrics and sharp instrumentation to the table to create the overall melodic mix of downer grunge and lighter indie rock. While Elliott Smith would dismiss the "loud" and repetitive quality of their sound, he gives too little credit to Gust's and certainly his own ability to craft melodic alternative rock and thoughtful lyricism within the dynamics of the band.