CD of the WEEK


Roman Candle **** Elliott Smith ***  Either/Or   **** Domino

Proving beyond doubt that the singer-songwriter genre isn't always populated by melancholic moaners, simpering sensitive souls or offloaders of third-rate sixth-form poetry, these re-issued albums from Elliott Smith - who died last year in a possible suicide - are irrefutable evidence of one other thing: the man was a once-off.

Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1969, raised between Dallas, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, and moved onwards to Hampshire College, Massachusetts, where he studied philosophy and political science, and Brooklyn, where he studied life. Within three years of releasing his 1994 début album, Roman Candle, Smith evolved from US indie's best-kept secret to Oscar-nominated songwriter. While RC highlighted his spartan folk style and lyrical introspection, there was a toughness to the music that brought it way beyond its obvious Nick Drake influences. 1995's swift follow-up self-titled album was tougher still, musically and lyrically. However, it was Smith's third record, 1997's Either/Or, that remains for many his defining moment.

By this time, his music had been featured extensively on Gus Van Sant's Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting; the sight of an incongruous-looking Smith singing Miss Misery at the 1997 Oscar ceremony bemused fans and singer alike, and it was the success of the movie and its soundtrack that drafted Smith out of cultdom and small labels into a wider space.

So these re-issued albums are in effect, the opening chapters of Smith's durable, notable life as a singer-songwriter with a difference. More fulsome, arguably better work would arrive with the likes of XO (1998), Figure 8 (2000) and this year's posthumous From a Basement On the Hill. Nonetheless, Roman Candle, Elliott Smith and Either/Or show how Smith's creative foundations were laid: gentleness and heartbreak allied with tough love - the harsh truth and nothing but the harsh truth as filtered through an abiding and warm love of The Beatles. Remember him whatever way you will, but through music as elegant and durable as to be found over these three records is surely best.