Roman Candle was somewhat of an accidental solo debut for Elliott Smith, but surprisingly its low-fi aesthetic still stands up well, over 15 years after its original release. The inevitable spit and polish given to this reissue is minimal and hardly adds to the experience, but the charm of the four track recordings is still evident.
While the album is by no means Smith's strongest set, it's probably the most revealing in terms of the inner torment he suffered. Essentially nine home-made self-produced demos, Cavity Search Records released them in all of their ragged glory almost immediately in 1994. Part of the attraction here is that the weight of commercial expectation placed upon his later work is absent.
"I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain" is a key lyric to both the title track 'Roman Candle' and the entire album. As the delicate guitars reveal sweet melodies and Smith's hushed vocals overlap one another, the material shows it is far more complex than it at first seems.
'Condor Avenue' illustrates the emotional aftermath of falling asleep at the wheel, and 'No Name #4' is a simple ballad based on domestic abuse. Yet the instrumentation is far from depressing. Even with limited resources Smith experiments with multi-tracked harmonies, and seems to gain confidence with electric guitars hinting at his future direction on 'Last Call'. Meanwhile 'Kiwi Maddog 20/20' is the perfect instrumental illustration that Elliott didn't just rest solely upon his voice and lyrics.
This reissue doesn't rely upon gimmicks to attract new listeners, it maintains the track listing the album originally appeared with, and keeps the original mixes. The respect with which archivist Larry Crane has approached this release is evident throughout, with only a few subtle tweaks. Fret board squeaks, tape hissing and the occasional sound peaks have all been reduced in the remastering process. Equally the album is audibly louder, but not uncomfortably so.
The removal of these elements may lead to some people arguing that the reissue detracts from the intimate mood of the recordings, but it does make the songs easer to listen to with headphones on. It's unlikely that the reissue of Roman Candle is an essential purchase for anyone who already owns the album, however it's a good jumping on point for anyone who hasn't previously explored Smith's back catalogue.