Review by LarryG|
2½ stars out of 4
Elliott Smith is a compelling figure. With his generally quiet
music and enigmatic, introspective lyrics, he gives the impression
that he has no need for fame and is almost embarrassed by the success
he's had. One of his songs from Good Will Hunting, Miss Misery, was
nominated for an Academy Award and he never plays it live. Between the
nomination and getting signed to Dreamworks records, Smith had no
choice but to face a larger audience. But with his Dreamworks
releases, Smith has kept the scale of his work small, playing most of
the instruments himself and carefully overdubbing, constructing
fascinating, pristine works. His lyrics are still about a shy, awkward
guy. It's unclear if Smith's often muted voice and deadpan persona is
the result of shyness or an attempt at cool. XO was a very
interesting, personal and often sad CD. Figure 8 is also a compelling
and well made record but it's still pretty modest and, as he works in
a similar vein, there is a little bit of a sense of diminishing
Smith tendency towards musical and emotional austerity makes me
appreciate his few straight out rockers like XO's Bled White and
Figure 8's LA. While Figure 8 is generally restrained, Smith does mix
up his musical settings and give many songs some life. LA grabs you
from the start with its well synched guitar and drum riffs. It has a
nice grungy sound with a loose rock beat and a good, sharp guitar line
as Smith sings about his new home, apparently enjoying the days but
dreading the star studded nights. Wouldn't Mama Be Proud is a welcome
change from Smith's usual fairly flat musical affect, starting quietly
then changing dynamics with Pete Thomas' solid drumming and Smith's
building keyboards. Stupidity Tries also grows in intensity with its
drums and strings, going out with sweeping flair. Son of Sam is about
having a troubled mind but Smith creates a rollicking good time mood
with an old fashioned sounding piano and has a good jam in the middle
with drums, guitars and keybooards, all presumably played by Smith.
Similarly, In the Lost and Found, about a lost love, has the charming
sound of a silent movie or player piano. Somebody That I Used To Know,
Smith's taunt about a woman who hurt him and now isn't doing too well
herself, is nice and simple with just Smith and his acoustic guitar.
He pulls off a nice folksy solo.
Other songs on Figure 8 are interesting but not as musically
welcoming. Smith emphasizes his tendency towards obsessiveness by
following Everything Reminds Me Of Her, which ends with Smith
repeating the title three times, with Everything Means Nothing To Me,
where the title(repeated about twenty times, first over a simple piano
then over dramatic keyboards and drums) is almost the entire lyric.
Both songs are fascinating if bizarre pieces of self pity. LA, which
follows, is a welcome break from the gloominess. On Easy Way Out, one
of a number of songs where Smith takes shots at an unnamed enemy, the
thinness of the arrangement emphasizes the thinness of Smith's voice.
The low key Color Bars is pleasant but fairly pointless. Pretty Mary K
has great imagery of a soldier in an infirmary falling in love at
first sight then being unable to find her again but the music is
pretty bland. I Better Be Quiet Now, about being paralyzed by
loneliness, is quintessential Elliot Smith.
Smith's love of the Beatles has been well documented and he knows
how to put together a subtle, good sounding pop record. Smith isn't
consistently revealing, lyrically or musically, and the songs don't
always reach out to you but they often benefit from a closer listen
and can also work as background music. Smith is a distinctive
personality and Figure 8 is certainly a worthwhile record.