Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield. Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith.
Ramseur Records, 2015. Seth/Jessica: http://www.sethandjessicasing.com/
Elliott Smith is a classic story in tragedy. A singer-songwriter known for his songs of loneliness and desolation, his death in 2003 has sparked numerous musical reactions, including tributes of various sorts (including pianist Christopher O’Riley’s Home to Oblivion) and an upcoming documentary on his life. Here, Avett and Northeast Ohio native Mayfield team up to do their version of a dozen of his songs, and it’s unlikely that a more appropriate duo will repeat or surpass this album. They capture the essence of Smith’s work and add their own spice to it, creating something new and sparkling in the process. I must confess that I have never been a big fan of Smith, and I suspect that it had to do with his singing. Some excellent songwriters deliver their music in a way that I enjoy (Gordon Lightfoot), and others not so much (Joni Mitchell). Others will, of course, vehemently disagree. Dylan, anyone?
Part of Avett & Mayfield’s success is in their approach. Both singers express themselves in a style similar to Elliott, which certainly helps. Mayfield’s previous albums as well as those of the Avett Brothers, while coming in some respects from a different genre (they’re more Americana, Smith is more alt.rock and unplugged grunge), there’s a meeting place with these ballads. They get the music and the feeling. Another aspect is their voices, separately and together. Each brings something Smith-like to the table vocally, whether Avett’s light and airy tenor, slightly stronger than Smith’s, or Mayfield’s ethereal voice that brings out a different quality to the music. Together they harmonize beautifully, adding a dimension that Smith generally created by overdubbing his own voice. To me, Seth Avett sounds eerily like David Mayfield, Jessica Lea’s brother, which could be why the harmonies sound great, but also familiar.
The arrangements are generally faithful to Smith’s work, with some changes that seem appropriate. They rock out a bit more “Roman Candle,” and it sounds great. They take the piano jauntiness out of “Baby Britain,” but add some gorgeous harmonies, and I have to say I prefer theirs over his. Actually, I can say that about most of the songs, which display stronger vocals, more varied instrumentation, and a fuller sound in general than Smith’s originals.
Elliott Smith purists may not be so fond of these remakes of some of his classic songs (“Miss Misery” is not among them). Others may discover Smith’s music who (like me) had overlooked him before. This is an excellent album, and I recommend it for both Smith fans as well as fans of Avett and Mayfield.
Personnel: Seth Avett (vocals, guitar), Jessica Lea Mayfield (vocals, guitar), Paul Defiglia (bass), Joe Kwon (cello), Tania Elizabeth (violin, viola), Scott Avett (banjo). Somebody plays piano.
Tracks: Between the Bars, Baby Britain, Fond Farewell, Somebody that I Used to Know, Let’s Get Lost, Twilight, Ballad of Big Nothing, Angel in the Snow, Pitseleh, Angeles, Roman Candle, Memory Lane.