Elliott Smith began his career like most aspiring musicians in the Northwestern states: putting in the requisite hours in a grunge band. Being a team player, however, is not Smith's forte. After those buzzy shows in the bars of Portland, OR, he would retreat backstage with his acoustic guitar and whisper his own quiet songs to himself. This album is his first attempt to record those songs, and they capture that feeling perfectly: a loner retreating from the noisy tension of life with others, finding solace in musical solitude. Roman Candle was, in fact, recorded in solitude on a four-track in a basement. Smith played all the instruments himself. He has said that he's always surprised when people call his songs "sad," because playing them always made him happy. You can hear that reclusive joy in the light bounce of the melodies and hushed harmonies (which recall Simon & Garfunkel). But his lyrics are haunted by the downbeat, drug-addled life from which he was retreating. For all their cryptic cleverness, there is a restless unhappiness in his fragmented stories of alienated urbanites. After that description, a reference to the definitive folk loner, Nick Drake, is inevitable. Smith's whispery vocals and able fingerpicking deserve the comparison. The highlight of Roman Candle is the title track. The quietly driving acoustic guitars and threatening bass create a disturbing portrait of a human time bomb, barely containing a seething and simmering undercurrent of bitterness. The rest of the album, by comparison, is pure sunlight.
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AllMusic Review by Darryl Cater