Given the breadth and quality of his discography, it is easy to forget that Smith’s career as a solo artist was never a premeditated one. Rather, the nine songs that comprise debut album Roman Candle were presented to a small independent label as little more than a glorified demo, and even then only due to the goading of his girlfriend at the time. Recorded on a four-track machine in his basement and likely gestated for the most part while on the road with Heatmiser, they were never expressly intended for anyone’s ears other than Smith’s own – a factor certainly borne out in their deeply personal themes.
This reissue is the result of his friend and archivist Larry Crane performing an unobtrusive remastering of those original cuts with Roger Seibel of SAE Mastering, and you can’t help but feel that any ire aimed their way by some of the hardcore Smith contingent has been sorely misguided. The creak of fingers sliding down the fretboard, the sound of bum notes and hissing reels: all these things indelibly remain. To over-contemplate its reissue on purely technical terms would be a mistake, as well as a disservice.
Smith tangibly seethes as he delivers the title-track’s central lyric, painting a picture of domestic abuse that crops up throughout the remainder. It is a vivid, brave song with which to open an album (not least a career) and like many here, it’s rendered all the more poignant by his tragic, untimely demise. But alongside this bleakness lies compassion, and its central salvo of unnamed tracks illustrates his gift for marrying the clearest, most beautiful melodies to darker subtexts.
If music is worth doing “just because”, it is worth listening to because of musicians like Elliott Smith. Which isn’t to say that Roman Candle is his best or most defining work – although uniformly strong, he would go on to write better-realised songs and fuller, more satisfying albums. But this remains a searingly honest and decisive collection. As a genesis of exceptional talent it is flawless, and heartbreakingly so. --James Skinner
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For me, the first three solo albums are Elliott at his best because they ache with the most emotion due to the lack of polish and studio gloss. The intimacy of a simple acoustic recording on a Portastudio should not be underestimated - especially not when the songs are this beautiful, with dark, sometimes depressing lyrics.
Roman Candle is a stark, quiet, beautiful record and is probably Elliott's equivalent of Nick Drake's Pink Moon in that it is so minimalistic in production, mostly just acoustic guitar and vocals. His voice sounds gorgeous, Elliott could sing like a bruised angel, but his punk background lent real power to his sweet melodies, as can be found in the barbed lyrics: "I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain". Elliott gets placed in the folk category a lot of the time, but really it's acoustic indie folk punk with a heavy nod to 1960s guitar pop, particularly the Beatles.
Elliott was a true master of the acoustic guitar and a genius songwriter. What a shame he has left us, but his music will go on forever.
This may well be a coincidence but its hard to discount the fact that Elliott Smith is the master of the genre. That genre being heartbroken, gutwrenching ballads which seem incredibly soothing though brimming over with spite and regret.
This, his first solo album, is neither as smooth nor accomplished as any of the subsequent albums, particularly Figure 8 which is as slick as an oil accident. Instead the tunes are subdued, mostly four-track produced fare, which though lacking in production value exude sentiment and genuine emotion.
'Condor Avenue' and 'Roman Candle' are the two standout tracks, although the series of 'No Name' songs give an insight into how this record stated Smith's intent. Though he has achieved more commercial successes and has become more graceful with each album, this remains the foundation on which he has built.
This is an engaging record, one which isn't the easiest to listen to but is ultimately rewarding. If you buy one Elliott Smith album, I would recommend Either/Or. If you like that though this is a pretty rum album itself.
If you own this album you won't need me to tell you its one of those albums that not enough people get, if you do get into Smith you'll enjoy his incomplete masterpiece 'From a Basement on the Hill'.
For those that don't own this, many bands have tried Smith's jingle jangle acoustic guitar such as Turin Brakes on the opening track of their debut, but few have sounded as doubtful of the ground they stood on as Smith does on opening/title track 'Roman Candle'.
Moving crisply through the reportoire of Smith, Roman Candle is full of regret and the kind of social snobbery we all experience from time to time "Everyone has gone/ Home to oblivion" he crackles on No Name #3 (used on the Good Will Hunting Soundtrack). Highlights are hard to pick because this is a complete body of work not a collection of sound bites.
If you want Cobain or Curtis to come crashing into your living room with an acoustic guitar don't buy this album. If want a unique acoustic sound, then the man to start with is Elliott Smith and the album to start with Roman Candle.
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