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. With a 12-song selection reaching across Smith‘s entire seven-album output (including the two posthumous releases of original material), the sequencing of the album is first-rate, mixing source albums, tempos, and energy, keeping the selection from getting too sullen, even in context of such melancholic material. Some of their versions are very loyal, with only minor changes to tempo or arrangements, such as their fully acoustic “Fond Farewell” [sic]. “Let’s Get Lost,” off of the posthumously released From a Basement on the Hill, is a nearly identical redo with Avett on lead vocals. Alternately, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” a McCartney-esque acoustic ditty from Smith‘s fifth album, Figure 8, is fleshed out to a fully arranged rock band, with strings joining the denouement. Perhaps thankfully, perhaps surprisingly, “Pitseleh” is the only song that gets the banjo treatment, played by Seth‘s Avett Brothers bandmate and brother, Scott Avett, though it’s performed subtly. The brooding revenge fantasy “Roman Candle” from Smith‘s 1994 debut is brightened by jangly guitar, feedback, and drums, with the plot slightly altered by Mayfield being the one to sing “I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain.” The slight twang of both artists sits nicely on these tunes, especially their stripped-down “Ballad of Big Nothing.” If there’s a takeaway from this project, it’s likely about Smith rather than the performers here: the power of his songwriting bursts through the arrangements. The experience of this album is to have listened to an Elliott Smith record and not an Avett project or to anyone else — a testament to Smith, certainly, but also to Avett and Mayfield‘s tasteful if fail-safe renditions.
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