August 1998
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Elliott Smith --
XO

by Lawrence Cabanero

Wedged between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion who performed two of the most popular songs of the year on Top 40 radio, Elliott Smith's humble Oscar performance of Good Will Hunting's "Miss Misery" surprised everyone who thought that the Academy couldn't nominate anything that wasn't a Disney song (or sounded like one at least). The performance gains him more popular and critical recognition and Mr. Smith goes to Hollywood to record his major label debut.

Like fellow neo-folksters Duncan Sheik and Rufus Wainwright, on 1997's Either/Or, Smith has a definite sound that seems to give him a catchy edge throughout the album. In his case, the overuse his stretchingly high-pitched, sharp-hitting harmonization on about every track put Smith's songwriting capabilities slightly into question. With all the hype built around him, XO was to be a true test of whether he could keep his acclaim as he dove into the mainstream.

XO doesn't disappoint though. Smith becomes more daring on the album's opener "Sweet Adeline" with its loud, scale-descending chorus and the faultlessly repetitous "Amity". And he doesn't lose any of his charm or appeal on the hookless "Pitseleh" and "Waltz #1". Musically, the album is much more varied--sometimes bluesy, sometimes jumpy, sometimes in-between. He brilliantly joins his music and his words, expressing the feelings and the situations involved with a man who's life normally doesn't work out right and alternating depression with hope and anger. "Happy and sad come in quick sucession" he sings in "Bled White" as if the only confidence he has is that everything will fall apart. Oddly though, XO has a way to keep you from getting depressed yourself. He hurts so cleverly that it's more likely to make you smile.

[A] [93%]

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