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Served Three Ways: Three Covers of Elliott Smith’s “Between The Bars”

Elliott Smith wrote some of the prettiest pop songs ever written. Of course, writing a pretty pop song isn’t the same thing as writing an upbeat pop song. “Between the Bars” is a perfect example. The melody is touchingly beautiful and unthreateningly gentle. The lyrics, however, are undeniably troubled. Although the song could double as an unorthodox love song (a popular interpretation of the track), the most likely read is that it’s about the threat of impending alcoholism. As the track opens, Smith sings ruefully about “the potential you’ll be, but you’ll never see / the promises you’ll only make.” As it progresses it’s clear that Smith’s protagonist is being lured by alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with his self-disappointment: “people you’ve been before, that you don’t want around anymore / they push and shove, but won’t bend to your will / I’ll keep them still.” The three takes here never stray far from the simplicity and beauty of the original.

Metric – Between The Bars (Elliott Smith Cover)
Madeleine Peyroux – Between The Bars (Elliott Smith Cover)
Agnes Obel – Between The Bars (Elliott Smith Cover)

I’m going to let Elliott have the final word on this one:

Elliott Smith – Between The Bars (Live in Stockholm)

Which is your favorite take on the track (aside from Elliott’s)?

Posted by Matthew Hickey

MattNekoRecords

Matthew is the music editor and co-founder of Turntable Kitchen. He’s addicted to vinyl records, pour over coffee, craft beer, small batch bourbon, and pan roasting pork chops.

  • Tom C

    A few months ago, I hit Youtube to see if there was a good version of Between the Bars. To my surprise, I found no fewer than 80 covers of the song. Though most of them are young women with a guitar, there is nice mix of other arrangements, too. I threw a bunch of them into a playlist: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL56A7AC792D8467B5

    Elliott’s is still my favorite, but the emotion and spirit is undeniable in many of these — a testament to a wonderful song.

  • Brian

    It’s interesting that in all three of the covers the singer decides to hit a high-note on “…bend to your will…”, where Elliot delivers it in a resigned a defeated tone. This a very hard song to cover, because there isn’t much room to play with the tone without ignoring the sentiment.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Matthew

    Tom: that is an awesome collection of covers you found! It really is an affecting and beautiful song.

  • http://www.turntablekitchen.com Matthew

    Great point Brian. Although when Peyroux sings the line the first time it she lets the line almost trail off which I kinda like. It mirrors the defeat in Smith’s vocals.

  • Brian

    Oh snap! She totally does. Ha, I let the second hit overshadow it.

    The Peyroux version is probably my favorite too. I like her Billy Holiday delivery.

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