All releases that we get to review come with varying degrees (and often quality) of press release, biography and so forth to help the reviewer perhaps frame the release in the context of an artists career, or otherwise to help the artists to set the scene for themselves. In this case there is almost nothing. A couple of paragraphs are all of the supporting text supplied and I guess the point is that this is a record that is exactly what it says it is, the songs of Elliott Smith as sung by Seth Avett and Jessica Lea Mayfield, or to put it in title order Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. They are simply two big fans singing some of the late Elliot Smith’s works that particularly hit their individual or collective sweet spots. Significantly, it’s something that they do very well indeed, a simple idea then that needs no further fanfare, just your attention for 40 minutes as the songs are vividly rekindled. Perhaps I should end my review here and simply urge you to find it, buy it and listen to your hearts content.
But being a curious sort (in all senses perhaps), I wanted to know more and get right beneath the skin of this record. It’s possible to glean a little from the video that acts as an introduction, but at just over six minutes, it seems somewhat perfunctory at first pass, leaving more questions than answers. Something grabbed me, however, as the opening minute or two frame a shot of Seth at a kitchen table totally absorbed by a laptop. On the screen is footage of Elliott Smith and Seth is studying it intently, while shaping chords, slightly awkwardly, and starting to work out the patterns that Elliott is picking. It cuts to Jessica and Seth learning to sing the song together, then to each of them singing into mics, with pop shields in place and studio cans on. You could rightly say that there’s nothing much in that, no surprises in the sequence, yet somehow I found it strangely moving.
Perhaps it’s just the delicate beauty of the song, Let’s Get Lost, with the first frisson of the duo’s voices and the snatch of lyrical intrigue that the snippet delivers. That’s simply music working its magic, but there’s also a hint of the patient process that has made this record happen. You get a little more of that as the video cuts to Seth diarising October 10th, 2011, Concord, North Carolina, as the start of bringing a few months’ worth of work together. He goes on to explain how the project has come about quite naturally as it’s just a question that both of them love Elliott’s songs. Seth even adds the qualifier that even if they chart some pretty dark territory, there is a real joy in singing them. But with that start date, clearly this has been a labour of love, almost certainly because of other commitments, yet both have been prepared to persevere and in the end wanted to put their names to this collection.
Jessica Lea takes it even further explaining that there are times when she forgets that they are Elliott Smith’s songs, they feel so close and personal that they seem to belong to Seth and herself, whichever is singing. There is a sense here that Smith’s music can take over and she feels that anyone who really hears his words starts to relate them to themselves. She does, however, also admit that there are times when she can’t listen to Smith’s songs at all and even divides her time between Elliott Smith time and the rest of her music time. All or nothing then. It’s another powerful statement.
Perhaps at the heart of my desire to know more is that my own relationship with Elliott Smith is a poor one, something I keep meaning to do something about, but never find the time. Well here if ever there was is the inspiration to finally put that right, this CD is everything I love about music and that starts with a truly great set of songs. It’s not that everything has made its personal mark just yet, but I have always been a lyric hound and there are some mighty juicy bones to gnaw on here. A more romantic image might be to suggest that once a toe has been dipped, it is very easy to wade in above your head, willing and oblivious, as you fathom the alluring depths.
Thus Between The Bars opens with Jessica Lea’s voice over acoustic guitar and acoustic bass, as she intones, “Drink up baby, stay up all night, With the things you could do, You won’t but you might.” In many ways it’s a simple love song with a promise of a kiss between bars and that giddy thrill of feeling young and indestructible. But given Elliott’s well documented problems, there’s also just a hint of desperation there with, “The people you’ve been before, That you don’t want around anymore, That push and shove and won’t bend to your will, I’ll keep them still.” The arrangement is kept really simple with Seth’s voice joining on the second verse, the duo intimately recorded with minimal embellishment, letting the tune, which adds to the melancholic tone, carry the words.
Elliott’s battles are everywhere, but cast in rhymes that standout of each song like, “The dead soldiers lined up on the table, Still prepared for an attack,” in Baby Britain. It compounds the country in the title with someone in Elliott’s sights, mixing Atlantic waves with seas of vodka. There’s a put down too with, “For someone half as smart, you’d be a work of art,” and also a come down with, “No matter what you keep repeating, Nothing’s gonna drag me down, To a death that’s not worth cheating.”
Much of the album is gentle with acoustic guitars creating the undulating melodies atop which, Seth and Jessica Lea drape their voices with elegant ease and enough barely suppressed ennui to turn each song into a sigh for us all. Of the tracks that are more amped up, Baby Britain in its middle eight and Somebody That I Used To Know, offer a little reminder that Elliott was amongst other things a real Beatles fan and for all of the clever words, there are some really killer tunes here. Roman Candle even reworks a track from his debut of the same name into a snarling punk thrash that makes sense of the lines, “I want to hurt him, I want to give him pain, I’m a roman candle, My head is full of flames.”
The extra musical muscle is provided by the Avett’s extended family, although it’s their usual keys man Paul Defiglia, who plays bass. Strings are well used across the record with Joe Kwon on cello and Tania Elizabeth on viola and violin also stepping across from Avett duty, with Seth’s brother Scott adding a subtle banjo accent to Pitseleh. I’m guessing therefore that it’s Seth who doubles up on pianos and drums, with both he and Jessica Lea adding their acoustic guitars to the mix.
Mostly they sing together, although Jessica Lea takes the lead on Ballad Of Big Nothing and the waltzy strum of Angel In The Snow, which also has a beautifully played guitar and piano duet in the middle. Seth sings the ethereal, reverb drenched Angeles, the album’s most atmospheric track, on his own and leads out the woozy closer Memory Lane, from which the album A Basement On The Hill derives its title.
The songs are naturally littered with things that you can take to reference Elliott’s troubled and too short life. The black dog stalks the edges of these sweetly melodious songs and as well as drink there are drugs too. Is it a coincidence that Lets Get Lost, that first song that hooked me in from the video, shares its title with the Chet Baker biopic, that charted the trumpet players all too famous surrender to heroin? Maybe, maybe not, the song is not explicit, but nonetheless suggests an escape from reality is needed. More explicit by far is the coruscating A Fond Farewell To A Friend, that flashlights the agony of, “And I can deal with some psychic pain, If it’ll slow down my higher brain, Veins full of disappearing ink, Vomiting in your kitchen sink, Disconnecting from the missing link.”
It is of course a tragedy that his death deprived us of what is unquestionably a significant songwriting talent. That death still remains open to question, was it suicide? There was never enough evidence to counter that conclusively, while there is plenty of evidence of Elliott’s own troubles weighing far too heavy for him to bear, but an open verdict remains. The song selection here favours the album that he was working on when he died, completed posthumously, A Basement On The Hill, while one song also comes from the selection of unreleased recordings, New Moon, which followed that. There are also three cuts from Either/Or. That album gets its title from the philosophical writings Søren Kierkegaard, whose work focuses on existential despair, angst, death and god, appropriate perhaps, although the record also predates Elliott’s battles to come, so perhaps signposts his path into darkness.
If Elliott Smith is new to you, then this affords a very warm introduction, impeccably played and sweetly sung for all of the right reasons, by two fans wearing their hearts on their sleeves. If like me you’ve always known he’s good, but were perhaps put off by his rather harsh beginnings, or his very public downfall, then the news is that it really is time to do something about the Elliott Smith shaped hole in your collection, he’s even better than you can imagine. For that, thank you Seth Avett and Jessica Lee Mayfield for a wonderful record and a perfect introduction. Job done I’d say, because I’m off to my local record shop with a wish list, as soon as I’ve played this once more.
Review by: Simon Holland