Elliott Smith - XO

WHEN ELLIOTT SMITH FIRST shuffled from the shadows, there was some doubt that the planet really needed another sensitive singer-songwriter chronicling the lot of the thrift-store loser. By the time the melancholy fog of 'Either/Or' had settled, though, it was clear such a gentle talent would be welcome wherever pale young people gathered to forage for beer and Prozac.

Three albums in three months will soundtrack an awful lot of late-night moping, and the question now is whether the planet really needs another record from Elliott Smith. Even the lowest of the lo-fi must feel slightly bilious at the prospect of hearing Smith peel away a few more layers of skin in his soul striptease.

'XO' is Smith's major-label debut, and instead of opting to become the new Richard Marx for the occasion -- something that might have suited him - he's chosen idiosyncratic new Domino signings Quasi as his backing band. Compared with the sparseness of his debut 'Roman Candle', even that's a commercial extravagance - piano, brass and flute plumping up these skinny songs like a shot of steroids.

'Waltz 2 (XO)' is Sebadoh scored by Blixa Bargeld, while 'Amity' sets black grunge clouds gathering like a stormy-weather Beach Boys. It's still the theme tune for high-school tragedies and lo-fi romance, big issues and small-town ennui, but this time, the lyrics and music are charged against each other, catching like a match on petrol.

Here's where you marvel that such a frail talent should have wandered into the snake-pit of Hollywood, been Oscar-nominated and asked to perform at the ceremony for Julio Iglesias' natural audience. Yet magnified by the band, Smith's FM radio tendencies shine through brightly. The harmonies ooze Crowded House, 10cc and The Bee Gees; Ben Folds Five raise their smirking heads on 'Baby Britain', grinning the smug smile of a man with piano-key teeth; while the borderline slacker parody of 'Oh Well, Okay' veers perilously close to jauntiness. The one love this man has never lost is that of the Big Pop Hit. It explains perfectly why, out of the whole US U-ground, it was Smith who found himself rubbing against Celine Dion's LA sequins, while the unflinching dissections of Lou Barlow or Smog's Bill Callahan were kept hidden in cupboards and under the bed.

The logical step forward always stamps on some of the old magic, but for now, Elliott Smith's welcome is still guaranteed. All the same, this might be a good time to take that round-the-world trip he's always dreamed of. 7/10

Victoria Segal