Arts Desk

Elliott Smith at WMUC: Stranger and Stranger

Last Wednesday, I compiled a few narratives from current and former WMUC DJs involved in the rediscovery of a once-lost live session by indie-folk legend Elliott Smith, which contained a previously unreleased song called "Misery Let Me Down."  The story had gone viral two days earlier, when the Washington Post's David Malitz first wrote about it. The Post's story inititally reported that the digital song files of the performance came off a MiniDisc that a former DJ Ben Weisholtz recently discovered and mailed back to the station: In fact, the files that co-Music Director Vaman Muppala uploaded to WMUC's digital music archive came from a rip of a CD version that former Live Music Director Chris Henry discovered in 2009. No one at the station knew what was on the MiniDisc marked "Elliott Smith/Braid" until Wednesday night.

Now, it turns out the MiniDisc doesn't actually contain "Misery Let Me Down." But it does tell us even more about Smith's Third Rail Radio performance at WMUC.

After the Post's story went online, WMUC record librarian David Taylor spent a couple days digitizing material from that MiniDisc. He sent me an e-mail Wednesday afternoon explaining his progress and the process:

I currently have the session in a single wav file. I messed around with the EQ and amplified it, so you could say that I've 're-mastered' it. All that needs to be done now is to split it into tracks and convert to FLAC and mp3. We are looking at over 18 minutes of content here. It should be done and online by tomorrow, but I might just finish it later today.

Taylor finished the job Wednesday night and quickly posted the tracks to WMUC's Tumblr along with an explanation of what he found. The MiniDisc that Weisholtz sent back to the station isn't the original recording of Smith's session; it contains six songs and promo Smith recorded for the station, which makes it shorter than the CD. "Misery Let Me Down and the aborted versions of "Division Day" and "Say Yes" are missing from the MiniDisc. What's more, the MiniDisc has one cut, "The Biggest Lie," that's not on the CD  version of Smith's performance. So neither the CD nor the MiniDisc contains the entire session.

Judging by the content on the newly acquired MiniDisc, it's safe to guess that it's an edited compilation of Third Rail Radio performances meant for future on-air play. Smith's unfinished takes are omitted, and the singer likely didn't even want "Misery Let Me Down" to be recorded, so that's not here either. (Before he started playing the tune, Smith asked, "Can I like warm up and play a song before we tape?") On the MiniDisc, Smith's performance is also paired with one by Braid, and while the emo foursome did a Third Rail Radio set, it wasn't with Smith. Though it's hard to say for certain that the MiniDisc was indeed created for future radio play, it's clear that the disc doesn't contain the original recording of Smith's performance.

But Taylor hasn't given up on finding the original recording of Smith's performance. In fact, going by that Tumblr post, it's become something akin to his white whale:

We will not have a definitive version of Smith’s WMUC performance until we can find the original ADAT that it was recorded on.  It has become one of my highest priorities and I will keep you posted on any developments.  This will have to tide you over in the meantime.

He's got a big quest ahead of him, but faithful Elliott Smith fans might want to take solace in a short note the record librarian left at the end of his Tumblr post—he found the ADAT of the Braid session. At the very least, now Braid fans can rejoice, too.

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