There’s an endearing timidness readily apparent in Elliot Smith’s whispered voice as “Speed Trials” begins “Either/Or.” Though countless acts both before and after have gone for the same sound as Smith, you only need to hear sweet-tasting tunes such as “Between the Bars” and “Rose Parade” (a track that, in certain respects, embodies the whole album) to know that this is the real thing. The shine from Smith’s hooks and melodies ensures that all similarities with your average staring-at-your-shoe songwriter catching their angst on tape, are blown away.
Although Elliot Smith was still progressing as an artist, and his subsequent releases had more of a fuller, polished studio sound to them, he fully reveals himself here. Although his voice seems like it’s holding back somewhat (it’s difficult to imagine Smith reaching anything near a scream on these songs), the lo-fi intimacy and introspective simplicity of “Either/Or” give the songs an irresistible charm.
In places, it’s hard to grasp quite how these deeply personal songs of alienation can sound so dulcet and upbeat, but that sums up the bittersweet dynamic that Elliot Smith seems to work best with. The layered vocals of “Alameda,” for example, has us wandering the streets, aimlessly day-dreaming, not knowing where to go or who to turn to; but one is only too happy to be lost if this is what it sounds like.
The quick finger-picking of “Angeles” (a song that appeared on the “Good Will Hunting” soundtrack, which also saw Smith pick up an Academy Award nomination for his efforts on “Miss Misery”) comes in with a more fervent throttle, a lovely organ eventually sifting in with a far-off ice-cream van effect. “Cupid’s Trick” is full-bodied, ghostly rock, working to vent frustration; it’s the bittersweet voice of someone spurned, and not for the first time. While the harrowing beauty of “2:45 a.m” is like the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” on a comedown, the stark pop beauty of “Say Yes” has “number one hit” written all over it: “I could be another fool / or the exception to the rule / you tell me / the morning after.”
These last three songs form an excellent run together – and rarely are albums finished on such a high note – but this closes out perfectly what is a work of sustained quality: pop-driven folk filled with brilliant chord changes, forming the colours of an Indian summer.