Elliott Smith’s debut album Roman Candle begins the way a lot of his later albums began – a simple strumming guitar. Although the sounds of the guitars are soft, the lyrics have a bite. “I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain,” scathes Elliott toward an unnamed oppressor on “Roman Candle.” This title track is much an opening to what the album turns out to be – beautiful, yet angry.
The songs on this album feel like ripped out pages of somebody’s tear-stained diary. They tell stories, often of heartbreak. “Condor Ave.” tells a story of a woman who has left town, while her lover figures out what the next step is – “Now I’m picking up to put away anything of yours that’s still around.”
The following three songs are all nameless, with substituting titles “No Name #1”, #2, and #3. These songs float by without leaving an enormous impression, and they tend to connect to each other which makes them feel like one large song. Although they do have their quiet little mantras, like “Leave alone, ‘cause you know you don’t belong here” and “everyone is gone, home to oblivion.” The harmonica featured in the second no-name tune is also a welcome bit of flavor in an otherwise insipid album. “Drive All Over Town” seems to be a sequel to “Condor Ave.” with lyrics such as “But when it’s 3am he wonders where in the hell she went, and he’ll drive all over town.” “No Name #4” seems to tell the tale of a woman abused at the hands of her lover who leaves town.
“Last Call” is not only the longest song on the album, but also the standout track. It comes the closest to having a chorus with “I wanted her to tell me that she would never wake me.” Closing song “Kiwi Maddog 20/20” is a simple instrumental that doesn’t really do anything to extend the vision of the album, but the simple guitar strums are very lovely in an Elliott Smith kind of way.
In 1994, Elliott was still a member of the alternative rock back Heatmiser. Roman Candle was recorded in the basement of Elliott’s girlfriend’s house. And it definitely sounds as such. The album is extremely lo-fi, and few sounds besides a guitar and Elliott’s own voice appear on the album. But the homemade feel of the album makes it feel very intimate in a way that few artists have been able to do. The sound is so organic and raw that it makes the listening experience feel very personal.
Yet, at only 30 minutes long, the album comes and goes without making a huge imprint. But Roman Candle remains a fan favorite, not necessarily because of its completeness or complexity, but because it is a sure fire sign of what was to come in Elliott’s career. It is a great album to get a feel of what Elliott was like as a songwriter.
This is Elliott’s first solo record to come after his stint with Heatmiser. Released when he was 25 years old, Elliott was just beginning to find his niche as a songwriter. Roman Candle only hints at what Elliott’s music would come to be in the later 1990s.
The record, however, does feature themes that would come to be main staples in Elliott’s later work – love, heartbreak – but the music is not as matured as it would become on his following records. His lyrics are consistently relatable, and the lyrics on Roman Candle feel as if they are short stories. Elliott’s lyrics were always his strongest point, and you feel the words as they pour out. Every word is complimented but soft guitar strums, which makes for a very calming, if vulnerable listening experience.
Roman Candle, along with his follow-up self-titled record, did not feature any outside production, only that done by Elliott himself. While his later efforts followed the production assistance of Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, this record feels like a labor of love by an artist who is still discovering his voice.
Roman Candle was the first view into Elliott Smith’s career as a solo artist. While it is a fairly strong album, it only hints at the artist Elliott would become. The album released directly after Roman Candle, the dark and minimalistic Elliott Smith, was released on Kill Rock Stars after Mary Lou Lord was impressed by Smith’s talents. This record was also produced solely by Smith and featured many of the same elements as Roman Candle.
However, on his breakthrough 1997 album, Either/Or, Elliott truly began to find a music style and lyrical voice that made sense for him. The addition of producers Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf expanded his sound and made it rich and broad, without become overwhelmingly dissimilar to the sounds of his earlier efforts. Elliott continued to make strong albums until his untimely death in 2003. With each following album, Elliott took more chances musically while still remaining loyal to the 25 year old indie folk artist who made Roman Candle.
Reviewer: Tricia Stansberry
IRC: Bill Pulice
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