Elliott Smith - Roman Candle (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Elliott Smith

Roman Candle (1994)

Cavity Search Records

You want sad, beautiful music, you throw on Elliott Smith. In death, his already aching compositions have taken on an added layer of legitimacy. Which makes his solo debut, Roman Candle, all the more striking. It originally wasn't even intended for release (which probably explains why almost half of its tracks are called "No Name"), but as a demo collection that might garner Smith a 7" while he was still playing with his alternative band Heatmiser. Instead, it accidentally wound up as one of the best albums of the '90s.

At just nine tracks, Roman Candle is slight, but over the course of 30 minutes, it weaves a warm template. Were it not for the strength of his canon overall, I'd call this record the best starting point for new fans. But everything that endeared Smith to his fans–meloncholy vocals, melancholy lyrics, melancholy guitar–is on display here. While his later works would throw in window dressing, these four-track recordings cut to the core.

"Roman Candle" quietly opens the collection, as Smith declares "I'm a Roman candle / My head is full of flames." The loudest thing is the chord changes, which is either super distracting or so humanizing and earthly that you'll love it. That's not to say Smith doesn't get loud, as the more fully arranged "Last Call" attests. Smith uses all four tracks–two guitar parts, doubled vocals just like John Lennon, whom Smith had a love/hate relationship with artistically–and the whole thing is amazing. "Kiwi Maddog 20/20" gently closes out the album with a dreamy, country-ish instrumental, and it even uses actual drums.

While Smith would have higher profile releases like Elliott Smith (the one with the Royal Tenenbaums song) and Either/Or (the one with songs from Good Will Hunting, which also used "No Name #3"), Roman Candle holds up as a beautiful, delicate record, one that gets more rewarding with each listen.