Album Review: Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield, ‘Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith’
On their rendition of Elliott Smith’s “Fond Farewell,” Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield seemingly uncover the motivation behind their recent collaboration on a tribute album to the late singer-songwriter. Over a bed of deceptively cheery guitars, Mayfield takes the lead on the sweetly aching cut, as Avett – her on-and-off creative partner over the past three years as they worked on the project – gently echoes the sentiment of the refrain: “It’s just a fond farewell to a friend.”
That three-year-long project began when Mayfield was touring with the Avett Brothers, and Avett started playing “Twilight” on a piano backstage and Mayfield quite naturally started singing along. It snowballed from there, as the two friends began to discuss their shared affection for Smith and his work – an affection that both Mayfield and Avett confessed has had a larger-than-life presence in their lives as fans and musicians. “I feel like I know him now,” Avett said, despite the fact he never had the opportunity to see the singer live before his untimely death in 2003.
Likewise, Mayfield says she’s conjured a relationship with Smith simply through listening to his music, saying, “He’s one of the only artists out there, for me, that I have this fantasy in my head of who he is and who he was.” As such, the two singers use Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith to put Smith on a pedestal and bid their fond farewells to an artist who continues to have an indelible impact on their respective careers.
The duo’s devotion to Smith and his prolific catalog is heard in every delicate warble, all the charmingly wobbly harmonies and finely plucked guitars. It makes for almost stringently faithful covers, however, Avett and Mayfield do bring their own strengths to the table and, as a result, offer fresh interpretations of the originals. “Roman Candle” is the most noticeable departure. The lead and title track from Smith’s 1994 debut is almost chillingly stripped-down as a result of the singer’s lo-fi basement recording process. Avett and Mayfield bring an entirely new, though still ominous take on the track by instead highlighting grungy guitars and simply substituting Mayfield’s vocals for Smith’s, allowing listeners to hear “I wanna hurt him / I want to give him pain” with new context.
Mayfield’s darkly sweet vocal style perhaps more obviously lends itself to Smith’s body of work, but Avett subdues the typically anthemic twang heard on Avett Brothers albums, helping him hold his own next to Mayfield, especially on “Baby Britain” and his echoy, distant take on “Angeles.”
Whether or not Mayfield or Avett takes the lead on a song – and they trade off vocal duties nearly every other song – they are able to bring something new to Smith’s work simply by having the benefit of two singers. Together, they sound like two friends sharing the loneliness and melancholy that emanates from Smith’s catalog, whereas Smith shouldered it on his own through five albums and two posthumous releases. In that way, Seth Avett & Jessica Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, ends -- three years later -- very much the way it began: two friends sharing a love for Smith’s work over a piano.