Three years in the making, singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield and Seth Avett – member of the folk-rock band, The Avett Brothers – cover Elliott Smith tunes in their joint venture. Honoring the subdued, delicate style and less conventional harmonies on 12 of Smith’s original indie classics, Mayfield and Avett’s project is a success.
Both Mayfield and Avett have quality singing voices, in both timbre and flexibility. Alternating between tracks as lead and secondary voices, Avett can be the domineering rocker on “Somebody that I Used to Know” or the almost imperceptible presence as a duet partner on tracks such as, “Between the Bars”. Mayfield’s floaty, airy quality contrasts the heavy electric guitar, strings and drum kit during “Roman Candle” and complements Avett in duet.
Often the melody slips and slides around. The meditative melodic line on “Let’s Get Lost” doesn’t circumvents predictability, careening without absolute direction, perhaps enhancing the ‘lost’ theme of the song. Harmonically, this is also is richer than the typical folk/rock/country album. “Memory Lane”, for example, features a descending progression which adds welcome color to the track.
The standout cover is “Twilight”. Beginning with piano and guitar, and later incorporating strings, Mayfield and Avett duet at a small interval, the result a haunting multidimensional singular voice as opposed to two separate and distinct voices. This subtly underscores the powerful, wrought lyrics: “You don’t deserve to be lonely / but those drugs you got won’t make you feel better” and “Even if I think that you are right / Well, I’m tired of being down, I got no fight / You’re wonderful, when it’s beautiful / But I’m already somebody’s baby / And if I went with you I’d disappoint you too.”
While Smith’s smart lyrics and Mayfield and Avett’s faithful renditions are certainly worthwhile, the pervasive downtrodden nature causes fatigue when listening in just one sitting. In addition, though Mayfield and Avett alternate roles between lead and backup singers and additional instruments such as strings, piano or drum kit spice up the instrumental fabric, the sameness also contributes to a sense of too much of a good thing.
Heftily titled, Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith, Mayfield and Avett do a bang up job covering Smith’s dark tunes, capturing the haunted nature of many of these tracks. Despite the emotional fatigue with all these songs on the same record, Mayfield and Avett certainly make this forgivable on their first partnered album.