July 31, 2013

Between the Bars

Cover vs. Original

Elliot Smith
”Between the Bars,” first appearing on Elliot Smith’s 1997 Either/Or album – a record presumably named for Kierkegaard’s philosophic work, contrasting the aesthetic with ethical approaches to life – is also available in a remarkable cover by jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux on Careless Love (2004).  Not ironically, the original starts with chords similar to the Stones’ “Sister Morphine,” both
tunes personifying, at least to a degree, addiction (though, while Jagger/Richard sing to the drug, some consider the narrator of "Between the Bars" to be the bottle itself):

Drink up, baby, stay up all night
With the things you could do, you won't but you might
The potential you'll be that you'll never see,
the promises you'll only make
Drink up with me now and forget all about
the pressure of days, do what I say
and I'll make you okay and drive them away --
the images stuck in your head

Nearly 1 ½ minutes longer than Smith’s original, musically Peyroux’s version is weary, cavernous, plodding yet punchy, the most salient feature the sinister, two-beat call-response mantra produced by a note on the acoustic bass quickly followed by what sounds like a deep, two-note electric bass chord supported by electronically altered percussion (cymbal, wood block) and a ceaseless ¾ death waltz on the hi-hat, all making room partway through for semi-random, downward arcing piano arpeggios, high-pitched, icy vibes and a seedy, reticent accordion.

By contrast, Elliott’s approach is understated, deflated yet oddly insistent, with a few recorded tracks of acoustic guitar his only support in true ‘folk’ fashion, though spun out artfully with his typically modern air.

The respective deliveries of the lyric could not possibly offer more contrast:  Peyroux’s burnished Billie Holiday yarble is expressively nuanced, exquisitely embellished and decadently luxurious, while Smith’s vocal, though doubled, remains curiously disembodied, disconsolate yet inexpressive, flat, unadorned, with a true air of defeat, making it all the more chilling.

While both do the words equal justice, Peyroux’s approach seems better suited to the main verses than what I’ll call the ‘chorus’ (“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”), where her word-painting is slightly overdone versus Smith’s straightforward recitation, intended as both a comfort and a warning.  Smith’s admonition continues, offering us the title line in the third verse:

Drink up, baby, look at the stars
I'll kiss you again between the bars
where I'm seeing you there with your hands in the air,
waiting to finally be caught

The potential allusion of these “bars” to either saloon-hopping or the penultimate scene in Robert Bresson’s 1950 film “Pickpocket” (an embrace through the bars of a prison cell) adds a tragic richness of multiple interpretations involving love, loss, addiction and the (im)possibility of escape in various doses, cemented by the final verse:

Drink up one more time and I'll make you mine,
keep you apart, deep in my heart,
separate from the rest, where I like you the best,
and keep the things you forgot

In the end, though originals are always the heavy favorite, Madeleine Peyroux wraps her arms (and unique talents) so firmly around her performance of “Between the Bars” that most Elliott Smith fans will insist on having her cover in their collection.  Putting one after the other on repeat play offers a uniquely compelling experience, a legacy his tragic death can never hope to erase.