Thursday, July 15, 2010

Album Review: Elliott Smith – Roman Candle

Elliott Smith released his debut in 1994, a short album running to just half an hour in duration. It’s largely his breathy vocals and acoustic guitar, with some electric guitar overdubs. The odd backing vocal here and there. No percussion. So it should be awful. Further more only 5 of the 9 songs have titles, the others being No Name #1, #2, #3 and #4.

It sounds very intimate, with every breath of his vocals and every movement of his fingers clearly audible, perhaps due to the 4-track production. The title track sets the tone for the album, with it’s insistent guitars and slightly menacing refrain (“I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain”). Condor Avenue is in a similar vein, and sounds like the raw materials for his later, more well-known material.

No Name #1 and No Name #2 have a more relaxed feel, #2 throwing in some harmonica. What separates this from the usual run-of-the-mill singer-songwriter fare is some unexpected chord changes which crop up all over the album, notably in No Name #3.

It’s a little samey when listened to right through, though final track Kiwi Maddog 20/20, an instrumental, is a welcome departure, with surf-style guitar. The rest of it can be bracketed with Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate etc.

I understand this album has been recently remastered and re-released, which I presume means cleaned up to make it ‘sound better’. Shame. Part of the charm is the little glitches here and there on the album. And I am fond of hearing fingers sliding over guitar strings.

Ideal circumstances to listen: Cliché it may be, but a darkened room in January at about 2am with the ice running down the window… and down your veins.