Elliott Smith was known to most as a kind of tortured genius. His demons overcame him far too young, but the music he made has always lived on, even garnering new life after his death. His songs are quiet and contained, but full of silent rage and gut-wrenching sadness. But they are beautiful and weird and beloved. And though it isn’t the first time other artists have paid him tribute, the new covers record from Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield is truly lovely. Their subtle and subdued harmonies give Smith’s songs an airiness, while maintaining that expected melancholy.
You don’t need to be a fan of either Mayfield or Avett to enjoy Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, but it helps. Mayfield’s signature angelic wail and Avett’s lightly raspy vocals work off each other easily and freely, and they sound best when they’re singing together. The strongest songs on Smith are the ones that feature a hearty dose of both voices, like “Baby Britain” and “Somebody That I Used to Know”. No ground is being broken here, but it sure sounds nice.
It’s tough to imagine an artist coming into Smith’s work and completely dissecting it in order to put it back together in some foreign sounding way. So it’s a relief that there are almost no surprises on Avett and Mayfield’s outing. They stick to what works, like gentle pianos and guitars, and soft melodies. Aside from a sped-up version of “Roman Candle” from the 1993 record of the same name, these two stay true to their source. Perhaps coincidentally, you can hear what could easily be the aesthetic inspiration behind Mayfield’s “I Wanna Love You” off her most recent record Make My Head Sing.
Of the two of them, Mayfield seems to be the most well suited to tap into Elliott’s psyche. Her sound is often equally as dark and brooding, yet fragile. Her songwriting is haunting and moody, and she explores the blackest corners of her brain. The Avett Brothers are not typically associated with this same gloominess, but Seth Avett is able to get close enough to it with Mayfield’s help. It is Mayfield, though, who is really able to access what made Smith so magnificent.
With so much focus on Smith’s many troubles, a record like this is a nice reminder of how beautiful his songs really were regardless of what he went through. And man, could he write a love song that would rip your heart right out of your chest still beating. “Angel in the Snow” is the most beautiful tune in this particular collection. The guitars are flowing and earthy, and the harmonies – led mostly by Mayfield – are a revelation.
Crucially, neither Mayfield nor Avett do Smith’s music any injustice. They simply pay homage to an artist they both clearly hold dear. Smith inspired so many songwriters, and the unique pairing of these two totally different artists is proof that the ways in which his spirit manifests itself is not the same for everyone.