No longer a slave to low-budget production values since he left behind indie labels, Elliott Smith surrounds his pasty-skinned voice with saloon pianos, polite garage-band bashings, crisp jangles, and dark-castle chamber pop on his latest, ''Figure 8''(much like he did on his 1998 DreamWorks debut, ''XO'').
Somewhere along the way, though, Smith forgot to write exceptional songs to match the sonic upgrade. His music has always straddled the line between fragility and triviality, and too much of ''Figure 8'' falls on the wrong side of that divide. Whether he's re-creating ''Miss Misery'' (''Easy Way Out,'' ''Somebody That I Used to Know'') or lashing out at a self-satisfied corporate type ("Wouldn't Mama Be Proud?"), the songs feel slighter than ever, and Smith himself continues to undermine his innate lyricism with snippy churlishness. (''It's all about taking the easy way out for you, I suppose,'' goes the typically finger-pointing chorus of ''Easy Way Out.'')
The album's tales of money, corruption, and movie-star debauchery -- presumably inspired by his recent move from New York to Los Angeles -- only succeed in making him seem loftier than thou rather than a sympathetic figure. Thanks to its ornate touches, ''Figure 8'' works as innocuous background music, but one doubts that's what Smith had in mind. A-