Respect to both artists on this tribute album to Elliott Smith. They somehow managed to record the 12 compositions together over three years in between constant touring as separate musicians, grabbing any spare opportunity to lay down a track whether it be in in their homes or hotel rooms. The question is whether Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers and his friend and fellow artist Jessica Lea Mayfield pull off the feat of taking Smith's intimately personal songs and add real value to them as opposed to mere reverence? The answer is not quite. Clearly both artists love the music of this troubled genius whose tragic suicide in 2003 robbed music of one of its greatest songwriters. In addition Avett and Mayfield rightly try to bring a new sheen to these songs rather than present "Elliott Smith Karaoke Favourites" which is the right approach. The problem is that while it works well on a number of songs on others the fragility of Smiths damaged approach which has led his biographer to describe the musician as the "Torment Saint" cannot be accurately captured. As a result the intimacy of Smiths songs somehow gets lost in the process.
The album starts with Mayfield leading on "Between the bars" Elliott Smiths most famous song. It is a respectful cover and Mayfield has a nice ghostly quality to her voice, but it is not a patch on the original. Much better is Seth Avett's lead on the Beatle-ish "Baby Britain" which pounds along nicely, equally his take on the superb "Angeles" is the albums highlight where everything is stripped back to his sensitive vocal and plaintive guitar. Indeed it is Avett's versions which generally shine most brightly. "Lets get lost" radiates affection for the original and the fragile harmonies with Mayfield hit the mark. Alternatively others like "Twilight" are turned into an alt country ballad by Mayfield, whereas Smiths original was one of his most personal vocal performances with one of his greatest recorded hushed, layered vocal delivery. To be fair to Mayfield she bounces back with an excellent "Angel in the Snow" but the attempt to "rock up" the acoustic rage of "Roman Candle" misses by miles. Avett closes the album with "Memory Lane" which is one of Smiths most desperate songs. It deals with his time in a treatment centre ( "this is the place you end up when you lose the chase.") but one he wrapped up in the sweetest of guitar melodies, giving the song a sense of irony. Avett alternatively treats it as a melancholy piano ballad accompanied by strings and largely pulls it off, closing a interesting album and worthy project.
To stress again the two artists involved have toiled over a labour of love with this album and if some of it doesn't work that is because Smith was such a unique generational voice that he is almost impossible to cover. Thus while this reviewer would not swap any of the songs on this album for the originals, Avett and Mayfield's covers are undoubtedly worthy of investigation and if they lead you to the source of this inspiration it will be a job well done.
Review by Red on Black