THE other day I almost froze as I heard a song coming out of the radio that sounded both fresh and eerily familiar. It turned out to be a song from the new Elliott Smith tribute by Seth Avett — guitarist for the rustic, North Carolina-based Avett Brothers — and the indie singer-songwriter Jessica Lea Mayfield.
The song — “Somebody I Used to Know,” a great and mournful break-up song that is here filled out and remade — made me think these songs were more flexible, and less dependent on Elliott’s own story, than I used to think. His first biographer, Ben Nugent, pointed out to me that these songs are not diary entries: They are personal, but also as crafted as something by Dylan or Joni Mitchell.
Some, including some friends of mine, disagree, and think these songs don’t translate, or that they are too tied up in Smith’s untimely death. Hearing Avett and Mayfield just now on KCRW reminded me of how much I love their versions of “Between the Bars,” “Big Nothing,” and so on.
Here is a video of the two playing and talking about the project. They’re at the Wilshire Ebell in LA Tuesday night.