When Elliott Smith sang his detailed, melancholy tales of depression and addiction, it came from his own experience. The singer-songwriter, nominated for an Oscar for "Miss Misery" from "Good Will Hunting," was a master at tucking darkness into beautiful melodies before his death from apparently self-inflicted stab wounds in 2003.
And it's that darkness that makes the Elliott Smith tribute from Seth Avett, guitarist-singer from the Avett Brothers, and Jessica Lea Mayfield so stunning. Somehow the sweet male-female harmonies in such sadly beautiful songs gives "Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith" (Ramseur) the power to stop you in your tracks, at times even more so than Smith's originals.
On "Fond Farewell," when Mayfield goes for a warmer, happier harmony than Smith's original on the line "It's just a fond farewell to a friend, this is not my life," it actually makes the song about those left after a suicide seem even more upsetting.
Mayfield picks up on the upbeat melody in "Ballad of Big Nothing" and adds her own lovely energy, which makes the existential twist ending hit even harder.
Avett turns "Memory Lane" into a haunting Beatlesque track, slowing it down and building up the orchestration. Smith's original, on his posthumous album "From a Basement on the Hill," seems more like a sketch, albeit an incredibly poignant one, while this version seems fully realized. When Avett and Mayfield harmonize on the line, "All anybody knows is you're not like them and they kick you in the head and send you back to bed," they play it for maximum drama, as if they are explaining Smith's plight to the world, which, in many ways, they actually are.
Maybe that's why "Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith" sounds so much like a labor of love.
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THE GRADE B+