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Figure 8

music reviewmusic review  out of 4 Music Review: Figure 8

Artist: Elliott Smith
Genre: Rock/Pop
Release Date: April 2000

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 returns.

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.



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