In the old days Elliott Smith was the stringy haired reclusive singer for Portland’s short-lived melodic punkers – Heatmiser. As his punk became mellower and increasingly introspective, he began releasing quiet acoustic albums, sounding more like the angel of Nick Drake than the vocalist for a straight-ahead Northwest guitar band. His first two solo efforts, “Roman Candle” and “Elliott Smith,” are powerfully fragile lo-fi masterpieces recorded in bedrooms and 4 tracks in and around Portland.
In a stroke of good or bad luck, depending on how you slice it, Portland auteur Gus Van Zant asked Smith to score his film “Good Will Hunting” propelling him indirectly into the arms of Celene Dion and the gazillion people that were watching the Academy awards from sofas all over the world. He had already signed to Dreamworks and almost overnight the still stringy haired Smith had a whole world of expectations resting on his shoulders.
On “XO” not much has really changed, the gentle melodies are as compelling as they have always been, he still swears whenever he wants, and the guitar work is as careful and competent as ever. The one primary difference on “XO” is the lush production job afforded by Dreamworks budgets and some slightly more sonic studio production veterans. What has always made his gentle singing and strumming so enchanting is the optimistic pessimism he is able to achieve. Lyrically the often-cynical reflections are counter balanced by the Brian Wilson-John Lennon-Nick Drake vocal stylings.
It’s been quite a while since a singer has had the courage to get as personal and intimate as Elliott Smith. Like the 60-70s folk singers, Elliott Smith has attempted to translate the thoughts and concerns of a generation who is, more often than not, too proud or scared to do so. “XO” is an album of wonderfully orchestrated tunes, delivered by a singer who knows better than to complain, but merely speaks of his life as it goes by- small intricate steps at a time.