Cleaning off the Shelves Review: Roman Candle-Elliott Smith

Cover Art for Roman Candle

Over the years, KZUU DJ’s have had a LOT of CDs sent to us. A lot of it’s good, most of it’s decent, and the others? Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t want to play it at your next house party. Cleaning Off the Shelves is a celebration of the good stuff; a deep dive into older records that we hope we can provide new life for.

The inaugural review for COTS is of Elliott Smith’s 1994 debut album, as well as his first solo project, Roman Candle, released by the label Kill Rock Stars. The album is bare bones in production, as it’s mostly Elliott and his guitar with a splash of harmonica or layered vocals that are both supplied by the artist himself. While some may argue that Elliott is not the most talented vocalist in the world, he provides his own niche with subtly complicated guitar riffs and thoughtful lyrics that remain a trend throughout his work. His instrumentation sets the mood and helps tie the album together into a great jumping-off point for what would become his successful career.

The album opens with the title track, Roman Candle. The song sees Elliott describe himself as a roman candle, which is a type of firework. This hyperbole is used to describe his anger towards an antagonist, which many believe to be directed toward his abusive stepfather. The heavy lyrics within the song are reflected within the instrumentation of the verses, where a discordant electric guitar riff hangs over the top of a driving acoustic guitar. 

Condor Ave is the next song on the album, where we see Elliott lean further into dark subject matter, as the song details a woman he loves (possibly a girlfriend) falling asleep at the wheel of an Oldsmobile and killing a drunk man as well as herself. The acoustic guitar again is the highlight of the song, serving as a representation of the wistful feeling of the narrator.

The four “No Name” songs on the album happen in succession of each other. No Name #1 describes the feeling of not belonging, and while the guitar on this cut may be the brightest sounding on the entire album, the lyrics, mainly centered around anxiety and isolation, clearly inform the listener that this is just a facade. No Name #2 is a look at depression, the toll that it can take on everyday activities, and how consuming it can feel when it compounds itself. No Name #3 features a melancholic acoustic guitar riff and repeats the line “home to oblivion”. This could possibly be a reference to ignoring the world around him in order to be more at peace with himself. No Name #4 is another fast-paced song driven by the acoustic guitar. Unlike the other No Name songs though, this song describes the emotion felt by a woman fleeing an abusive relationship. The main thing that Elliott focuses on is the fear of being in this type of relationship and trying to ignore it. This song also may be the best vocal performance on the album.

Drive All Over Town is the only song that interrupts the No Name songs. It’s the story of a man with a cheating partner. The lines “He knew the one time with the army captain / He got over that whole deal before it happened” tell the listener that this incident was shoved under the rug, and as a result, whenever his partner is out too long, he “drives all over town.”

The penultimate track Last Call is possibly the most fleshed out on the entire album. A decent vocal performance, and the only song that features prominent use of the electric guitar rather than using it as a background instrument. This is also the only song on the album that has a distinctive switch in the instrumentation in the middle. This mirrors the many switches in observation from first, second, and third person of a depressed person with a substance abuse problem. Many people believe that the song is about Elliott himself, and the “church bells” that are described at the end of the song is evidence of his suicidal ideation.

The closing track of Roman Candle is Kiwi Maddog 20/20. An excellent instrumental track that is the only song on the project which features drums, once again provided by Elliott himself. The electric guitar riff that dominates the song is bright with a cloudy undertone. The song itself is kind of a weaving, leery tune. It’s named after a type of cheap alcohol and if this reviewer had to describe the song in a few words, he would say “It feels like when you’re coming down from a party”. This song is definitely a highlight of the album, and if you aren’t a fan of Elliott’s vocals, you can still appreciate his talent on this instrumental. It serves as an amazing ending to a great album

Overall, Roman Candle is a solid album, and a perfect introduction to Elliott Smith. The feeling that this album gives me is the same feeling I get when I watch other people having a fun time, but I can’t enjoy it myself for whatever reason. The album surrounds you with its energy, and despite talking about such depressing subject matter, it doesn’t make me sad, it just gives me an extreme feeling of yearning. Whether that be yearning for a better time, or better life; a sort of sad hopefulness. So next time you watch [insert your favorite R-rated/PG-13 melancholic, indie, teenage coming-of-age film], throw on this album, and you’ll be able to appreciate it for what it is.

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