When Gus Van Sant was asked to comment following the tragic death of his friend Elliott Smith, who contributed the Oscar-nominated song “Miss Misery” to his film Good Will Hunting , he said simply, “His songs sound like Portland.” Four years after Smith’s demise, local coffee shops are still peopled by his acolytes—somber-looking chaps filling notebooks and sporting the ever-present watch cap favored by their fallen hero. Smith’s darkly whispered tunes such as “Rose Parade” and “Alameda,” about life on the margins of Portland, not only provided a stark counterpoint to the last gasp of grunge, but also helped lay the groundwork for a host of confessional singer-songwriters (a term that Smith, in fact, detested). Whether recurring depression and/or drug use led to his suicide by knife to the heart in 2003 remains a question mark (the case is unresolved), but there’s no debating the abiding influence of his work on our gritty little city.
The limelight: A rather shaky Smith sings "Miss Misery" at the 1997 Academy Awards. He’s beaten out by Celine Dion’s glutinous "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic, but his star is officially at its apex.
The lowlight: Smith’s two-year lapse into heroin addiction after the release of his Figure 8 album in 2000 includes a dust-up with the cops at a Flaming Lips show in 2002.
1985-present Country Rock
The British have had a long, well-documented fascination with the savagery of the American West, which is about as good an explanation as any for why Richmond Fontaine’s epic, gritty music has generated such a rabid following across the pond—after nearly 10 years of slogging away at home. The band’s conversion from hardworking alt-country boys to Continental critical darlings came about thanks to a barrage of high praise from English magazines like Mojo and Uncut , the latter of which practically adopted the group and dubbed lead singer and songwriter Willy Vlautin “the laureate of the lost, the lonely and the rootless.” All the attention has enabled Vlautin to embark on a promising second career as a novelist—his debut, The Motel Life , was an Editors’ Choice of the New York Times Book Review this summer.
The limelight: In 2004, Uncut magazine names RF’s album Post to Wire the fourth-best album of the ear, behind releases from Brian Wilson, Wilco and Loretta Lynn.
The Lowlight: A bad review in a 1997 issue pf indie-rock magazine Magnet nearly convinces Vlautin to abandon music and return to school.
1994-2006 Punk/Indie Rock
Despite Sleater-Kinney’s identification with the Olympia, Wash., rock scene (they’re named after a nearby freeway off-ramp and recorded for an Olympia label), Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss have called Portland home for several years and played enough local shows to warrant inclusion in this company. Residence quibbles aside, the trio’s chops, creative drive and incalculable empowering influence on their fan base have made them one of the most talked-about and critically lauded indie groups of the last decade. From their brash and ragged early days as riot-grrrl champions to their highly polished and bombastic final album, The Woods , Sleater-Kinney never stopped pushing forward creatively, in the end even choosing to go on “indefinite hiatus” last year rather than risking a rehash of musical ideas. And despite overtures from major labels, Sleater-Kinney chose freedom and control over lucre, remaining with the fiercely independent labels Chainsaw and Kill Rock Stars until moving to Seattle’s Sub Pop to record its last album in 2005.
The Limelight: In 2001 Time magazine calls Sleater-Kinney “America’s best rock band.”
The Lowlight: Sleater-Kinney reaches a sufficient level of success to inspire a local backlash: Portland band the Punk Group releases its cheeky anthem, “Sleater-Kinney Sucks,” in 2004.