Release Date: Mar 17, 2015
Record label: Ramseur Records
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Alternative Singer/Songwriter, Progressive Folk, Sadcore
Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith: itâ€™s all right there in the title. This project, over three years in the making, finds the Avett Brothers frontman and the eternally gloomy singer-songwriter teaming up to pay their respects to one of the greats. Mayfield and Avett canâ€™t seem to decide if they want to craft an extremely reverent and faithful tribute to one of their idols or put their own stamp on the material, which means things can be a bit hit or miss, but they're mostly hits.The reverence works in a lot of places.
On listening to Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, fans of the deeply introspective singer/songwriter who died in 2003 may be relieved to discover that the progressive folk and indie rock pair makes the songs the stars of this collection; it's not an album of reinvention or updating but of reverence. Though Smith often double-tracked his voice or much more rarely had guest backing vocalists, the male-female duo approach does make these songs less profoundly solitary, particularly compared to the first half of his solo output. However, their objective was doubtfully to try to match the haunting, intensely moving quality of Smith's recordings, but rather to maintain the emotional essence of his songs.
Does the world need an album of Elliott Smith covers? Wouldn’t it behoove anyone interested in the late singer-songwriter to just explore his widely available catalog? Unlike Jeff Buckley, another cult artist who earned acclaim after his untimely death, Smith’s defining characteristic was his ability to convey universal truths about loneliness, heartbreak, and beauty within the confines of a few stanzas. Smith achieved with words what Buckley did with his freakily exquisite voice, and that makes the troubled artist an excellent candidate for others to interpret. Longtime pals Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers) and Jessica Lea Mayfield recorded this passion project over the course of three years — passion being the key word here.
Elliott Smith's all-too-brief career inspired a generation of artists taken by his piercing lyrics and delicate melodies. On this loving, hit-or-miss tribute, Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield draw largely from Smith's 1997 breakthrough, Either/Or, and his posthumous work. Mayfield provides the highlights with her grunge rendition of "Roman Candle" and her elegant take on "Twilight." But the real revelation is how well such deeply personal material lends itself to interpretation.
It’s not an encouraging sign that Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield open their Elliott Smith covers album with "Between the Bars". If it’s not his biggest hit (that would be the Oscar-nominated "Miss Misery"), it’s certainly Smith’s most-covered song by a long shot, with jazz interpretations by Madeleine Peyroux and Christopher O’Riley; faithful renditions by Chris Garneau and someone or something called Saucy Monky; live versions by Metric and Agnes Obel; even a strange performance by Madonna, of all people. Millions of YouTubers with a guitar and a digital camera have uploaded a homemade cover, and are probably still doing so as of this writing.
Lots of music lovers bond with friends, or make new ones, over a common musical hero. Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers and singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield take that bond a step further with this reverent tribute to the late Elliott Smith. This one-off collaboration for former touring partners Avett and Mayfield features 12 tracks from the introspective tunesmith’s decade of recordings, released during his career and posthumously.
The challenge of covering Elliott Smith's songs is that they are so singular to Smith. His melodies have a clarity and musicality that feel endlessly inviting and replayable. But they're so tied to his inventive pop progressions and quietly virtuosic guitar work that doing anything else with them feels somehow false and thus hard to improve upon. Too often, Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett fall into this trap on "Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith." The album, a covers collection crafted while Mayfield was on tour with the Avett Brothers, is a bighearted tribute to Smith's influence across a generation of singer-songwriters.