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Elliott Smith 

Figure 8 (DreamWorks)

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
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After 1998's full-blown XO, Elliott Smith has pulled back a couple of notches for Figure 8. In the tradition of the DIY record maker -- albeit with a bigger budget -- the majority of the album's 16 songs are spare, though Smith again tries adding more stuff. Not that that's a bad thing -- his classic pop can handle the full treatment -- but he seems to be more at home on the less-is-more plan. With Smith, it's more about what isn't said than what is, and more about what's not played than what is. Girls' names (Mary Kay, Angelina) rise above the music while classical guitar, cello, and weird keyboards all give the illusion that even the barest songs are fully scored.

Produced by Smith with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf (Beck, Foo Fighters, and Smith's XO), Figure 8's songs don't have the requisite radio-friendly sheen of those alternastars, which is often the case with auteur projects. Smith plays most of the instruments, though he'll occasionally call in a specialist. L.A. pop maven Jon Brion, with his similar multi-instrumentalist aesthetic, adds vocals to the calliope sound on "Happiness." Outside of Smith's hands, this over-the-top pop approach might come out too twee, but Brion adds just the right amount of sweetness. "Wouldn't Mama Be Proud" and "Junk Bond Trader," with its timely refrain, "Better sell it while you can," punctuated by the sound of ominous bells, both find Elvis Costello's Attractions drummer Pete Thomas sitting in. "Everything Reminds Me of Her" is driven by the same kind of shy, acoustic-isms of Smith's Either/Or era; coupled with its companion, "Everything Means Nothing to Me" (for which he called in Sam Coomes of Quasi on quiet bass), the song emerges like a dream in which a Moog crescendo descends from prog-rock heaven, then segues into "LA," with its shades of prog-metal-lite riffing.

And then there's that Beatles thing: In tiny flourishes, for a couple of seconds, Smith references the band with a backward this, a sitar-ish that. He does it when he channels one of his declared heroes, George Harrison, and puts down one of his trademark leads during a minibreak in "Can't Make a Sound," while "Son of Sam" swings with the same kind of funky pre-hip hop beat Ringo originated. More proof: Some of the sessions were recorded at Abbey Road. With a trio of sulky songs that hold down the middle of the album and two more toward the end, Smith might recapture the fans he made -- and then promptly lost -- around the time of his Good Will Hunting success.

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Denise Sullivan

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