Elliott Smith resides in a fascinating pop-cultural place: He's a painfully shy critics' darling with indie-rock cachet, but he's also taken a bow on the Academy Awards stage while standing between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion. That more or less sums up Smith's unique appeal as a singer and songwriter whose music recalls Nick Drake and Simon & Garfunkel in equal measure. Smith's major-label debut, 1998's slick XO, didn't quite stack up to his brilliant creative peak (that would be Either/Or), but its highlights are many and varied. The new Figure 8 is even better, a strong collection of lush, densely arranged power-pop ("Son Of Sam," "Junk Bond Trader") and inimitably intimate ballads ("Somebody That I Used To Know," "Easy Way Out"). Smith continues to refine the art of the delicate dison both of the aforementioned ballads, in factperiodically dispensing sweetness and bile in equal measure. But Figure 8 never breaks from delivering Smith's songs with ornate elegance and a sublime mastery of pop hooks. If no single song soars as an outright masterpiece, that just solidifies the album's place as a lovely highlight in and of itself.