Elliott Smith | University Of London Union

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The Independent Culture

Elliott. handy, that. Had it been David, we would probably never have bothered to listen to his records. His middle name should be "Song", of course; he is one of a host of North American musicians - Mark "E" Everett, Joseph Arthur, Ron Sexsmith - proving that they do write them like that any more.

Despite an Oscar nomination for his work on the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, thus far, Smith has tended to be the critic's darling rather than the people's choice. You sense that his superb new album Figure 8 will change that, however. With the Spielberg-affiliated Dreamworks label behind its launch in April, it should do.

On Thursday night, it initially seemed as though the guy in The Bill's identity parade who actually is the mugger was promoting his "Stool Rock" album, but Smith soon charmed us. With just acoustic guitar and a collection of songs describable as two parts "Norwegian Wood", one part Big Star, he held an audience of students and industry insiders rapt - and that's not easy.

One of Smith's trump cards is his claw-hammer picking technique. It was particularly impressive on "Somebody That I Used to Know" and "Independence Day", where it added both a rhythmic base and a melodic counterpoint to his vocals. Not for Elliott the big strum à la "Mull of Kintyre".

Full and varied though his guitar-playing was, it was frustrating when Smith limited himself to one instrument live. On Figure 8, he enjoys his usual free reign as a multi-instrumentalist, so that "Everything Means Nothing to Me", for example, benefits from the kind of Debussy-esque piano chops Elliott had already mastered by the time he was 10. Somewhat inevitable, then, that his six-string rendition fell slightly short of the mark.

At times, Smith seemed like the sensitive singer-songwriter incarnate. He has the shyness of a young Neil Young, but whereas Young would endear himself to his audience by stumbling through an anecdote while swapping harmonicas, Smith finds it difficult to say much more than, "Thank you" (though he did say that often, and genuinely). When he finally ventured that new songs were more fun for him to play, adding a tentative "sometimes", someone shouted, "See you later, then," and Smith actually winced. I suppose it was too much to expect ULU to behave like the audience of BBC 2's 1971 In Concert series for a whole evening.