Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield pay tribute to Elliott Smith

'Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith' is a bighearted tribute: August Brown reviews the album

The challenge of covering Elliott Smith's songs is that they are so singular to Smith. His melodies have a clarity and musicality that feel endlessly inviting and replayable. But they're so tied to his inventive pop progressions and quietly virtuosic guitar work that doing anything else with them feels somehow false and thus hard to improve upon.

Too often, Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett fall into this trap on "Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith." The album, a covers collection crafted while Mayfield was on tour with the Avett Brothers, is a bighearted tribute to Smith's influence across a generation of singer-songwriters. But it rarely puts the original material in a new light or reveals much about songs that were already close to perfect.

Only Mayfield's fuzz-grinding revamp of "Roman Candle" discovers a new emotion — the gender flip of the first-person lyrics turns Smith's chorus of "I want to hurt him / I want to give him pain" into something truly seething. They break down "Angeles" into a gorgeous, despairing crawl of a ballad, but their reads on staples like "Between the Bars" and "Baby Britain" hew too closely to the originals to illuminate them. Few singers ever could, though, and that's what makes Smith great — and almost impossible to cover well.

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Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield

"Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith"

Ramseur Records

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