November 10, 2005

Tom DeLaughter and The Polyphonic Spree/Elliot Smith

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The soundtrack for this fall’s indie coming-of-age flick du jour, Thumbsucker, has been in the making an unnaturally long time. First-time director Mike Mills imagined no one else better suited to score the alienation experienced by his still-thumb-sucking teenage protagonist than Elliott Smith, the reigning troubadour of quietly devastating heartbreak. Mills handpicked Elliott Smith to score the entire soundtrack as a series of covers, but due to Smith’s unreliable output and mental problems, the project slowly crept into uncertainty. Finally, in the wake of Smith’s tragic suicide in 2003, Mills was forced to look elsewhere for his soundtrack.

What’s more interesting is Mills’ second (and highly dubious) choice. From the ashes of Smith’s delicate songs rose The Polyphonic Spree, a huge ensemble band (complete with choir and what Mills calls an “orchestral arsenal”) best known for their ’60s-era enthusiasm and unrelenting zest for life (and bizarre tendency to dress in matching colorful robes). Problematically forced into uneasy cohabitation, Smith and The Polyphonic Spree struggle to work together and end up mixing together like oil and water.

Mills makes no real attempt to reconcile the obvious aesthetic differences between Smith and The Spree’s lead vocalist Tim DeLaughter. As a result, the soundtrack suffers. Although Mills claims that The Spree “is all about fragility,” it’s hard to imagine their penchant for animated child-like singing and life-affirming songwriting (sample infantile lyric: “It’s time to move away and shine / You can be all you ever wanted in a dream”) as anything but. The few successful attempts at this supposed “fragility” conveniently resemble Elliott Smith wannabes, as in the unpretentious ballad “Wonderful For You.” It’s too bad, really, because Tim DeLaughter’s haunting vocals and lovely guitar picking would stand out on any cluttered Spree album if only it weren’t placed two tracks before the Smith standout “Thirteen.”

What should really attract people are the three Elliott Smith songs. Although any one of these tracks could stand on their own, the cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen” is by far the best Smith has to offer. It’s earnest without being eager and devoted without being saccharine. Equipped with his heartbreaking voice and unadorned guitar, Smith paints an innocent portrait of pure, adolescent puppy love: “Won’t you let me walk you home from school? / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool?”

The mark of any successful soundtrack is its ability to thrive outside the safety zone of the silver screen. Unfortunately, DeLaughter’s middling tracks are too short to ever be properly realized and are never given the opportunity to carry any weight. The Thumbsucker soundtrack unknowingly becomes a series of fleeting glimpses of possible themes, never really able to leave a lasting impression upon the listener. There is no doubt that Elliott Smith’s untimely death was devastating, and though the repercussions of his suicide will forever be seen in a myriad of ways, the most immediate void he has left in the world of pop music will be seen in this unfulfilling and largely unsatisfying album.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz
Sun Staff Writer