Let’s get this out of the way first: Elliott Smith’s songs are not easy to cover. This isn’t necessarily related to virtuosity, but might even be related to the exact opposite. Smith’s voice (squeaky, usually double-tracked, always on the verge of slipping off key) was something that he used as a weapon, tearing right into the heart of his music. Pairing that voice with soul-baring lyrics and melodies that never strayed too far from the Beatles and Beach Boys school of pop music, Smith carved out a segment of the singer-songwriter genre that was all his own.
That being said, Seth Avett (of the Avett Brothers) and Jessica Lea Mayfield have a decent go at it on the informatively titled Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. Upon first listen, the album’s most glaring problem (for Smith fans, at least) becomes apparent: most of the selections fall very close the originals. “Between the Bars,” probably the most covered song of Smith’s songs (over-covered, if you ask this reviewer), hits all of the original’s beats. “Angeles,” too, is played (albeit a little slower) like a straight transfer of the Either/Or cut. Though, this does raise a question: what’s the alternative? How do you rearrange “Angeles” (perhaps the best candidate for the most wholly representative song in the Elliott Smith catalogue) without losing what makes it special? I imagine these are the questions that Avett and Mayfield asked themselves, too – presumably without finding any satisfactory answers.
There are definitely some attempts to shake up the material, however. The duo’s version of “Baby Britain,” one of Elliott’s most chipper-sounding tracks (though lyrically, it still skews dark), trades in Elliott’s bouncy upright piano chords for an acoustic guitar and folk-standard, bass-strum picking pattern. The songs picks up a bit after the first chorus (with some especially pleasant electric piano flourishes), but the results are mixed. More successful is the Mayfield-led version of “Roman Candle,” which takes the acoustic tune and turns it into a full-band rocker, with crunchy guitars and simple, non-intrusive drums. This is an adaptation tactic that Smith used later in his career when playing some of his early songs live (the live, “rock” version of “Needle in the Hay” is a revelation, and well-worth the time to look up on YouTube), and feels completely natural when applied to “Roman Candle.” The biggest missed opportunity here is that the whole album isn’t made up of cuts like this.
The most notable feature throughout the album is the harmony vocal work between Avett and Mayfield. They’re both talented vocalists and their harmonies are always tight, well-mixed, and really beautiful to listen to. Smith, though musically gifted, never had a lot of true harmonies in his song (the a cappella “I Didn’t Understand” being one notable exception), so it’s nice to hear his melodies on songs like “Twilight” (a song that’s one of Smith’s greatest compositions despite not being one of his best known, and an inspired choice for conclusion on this record) given this kind of vocal arrangement.
Elliott Smith died in 2003, leaving a breathtaking catalogue of music behind. Is Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith going to make anyone seek out Smith’s albums? All in all, these are solid covers, so it’s definitely possible, especially for Avett Brothers and Mayfield fanatics who have managed to miss out on Smith’s music completely. Though, with records like Either/Or, XO, and Figure 8 to listen to, I can’t imagine any new Elliott Smith fans revisiting this covers album all too often.
Preview, buy, and download Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith at iTunes and Amazon. Or get a primer on the music of Elliott Smith with his best-known album, Either/Or, at iTunes and Amazon.