Run For Cover is a weekly music column comparing cover songs to the original version. Prepare for a major bending of rules as we hear musicians throw around genres, tempos, style, and intent. Whether they’re picking up another’s song out of respect or boredom, the results have impressed us.
There are a dozen quotes out there addressing the beauty of naivety and the bliss it totes in hand. To be free of awareness is to be, in a way, free of the world’s problems. But as most of us know, pursuing knowledge leads to a large pile of riches, and that depth of curiosity and understanding unveils a little more of what life is eternally trying to keep in the shadows. Every decade, a handful of artists rise to the top in search of understanding: David Foster Wallace, Nick Drake, Robin Williams. They’re artists who see deeper into the well than the rest of us and pull themselves back up to share whatever jewels they have found on its floor.
The only problem is that awareness that deep is too harrowing to support on your own.
While Elliott Smith‘s cause of death is still debated–suicide makes sense, but so does his girlfriend murdering him–his talent never is. The singer-songwriter was born in Nebraska and raised in Texas, but spent the majority of his life residing in Portland where he honed his craft. Before he began working as the dark folk prodigy we know him as today, Smith was laying out the same whispery lyrics in Heatmiser, a four piece rock act that lasted two years before ending in 1993. Over the course of his 10-year-long solo career, he went on to pen songs around his depression, alcoholism, and love life.
On his third full-length, Either/Or, Elliott Smith released some of his darkest tracks, many of which match fairly well with the gritty bathroom mirror pasted on the album’s cover. “Miss Misery” went on to become part of Gus Van Sant‘s Good Will Hunting soundtrack, launching him into a newfound success. Beside that Grammy-nominated song, however, lay another, equally sodden number: “Between The Bars”. The quiet acoustic guitar paired with his hushed vocals produced the type of pained artistry that later inspired Conor Oberst. It’s the mark of wunderkind at work, and Smith was just beginning to get tangled up in his own knotted ropes. The track was so bare that Van Sant asked to see an orchestral rendition for the film with help from Danny Elfman.
Talent has never been defined by age, and for Madeleine Peyroux, that was especially true. The Athens, Georgia jazz singer-songwriter was raised by hippie parents, the two of whom believed in eccentic education, and totted through Brooklyn and southern California. Their split when she was 13-years-old saw her move to Paris with her mother. Peyroux found herself in a new city, surrounded by the smooth beauty of the French language, and immediately fit right in.
That’s where it all began.
She started busking with a group of street musicians in Paris’ Latin Quarter. They passed around a hat, raking in their earnings throughout the day, and eventually let her join them. At age 16, Peyroux began touring throughout Europe with The Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band performing the usual standards. It wasn’t until 1996 that she released her debut album, a collection of jazz numbers feturing some of New York City’s finest local performers. After doing covers of Pasty Cline and Edith Piaf, her trasnition into original material went smoothly, and with the notation of a pro, too.
She’s since gone on to release five more albums and perform around the world, standing out as one of today’s best jazz singers. Her vocals have an eerie similarity to those of Billie Holiday‘s sans the coy grin. Perhaps one of her best and simultaneously hidden songs is her take on “Between The Bars”. Peyroux brings upright bass and sparse piano in to dust off the Smith classic, dragging the quiet gloss of jazz over it in its entirety. Her vocals roll out every word with a beautiful awareness, luring the listener to simultaneously drift off and sway on the dance floor in a close embrace. With such somber lyrics, it meshes for a semi-disturbing take.
Smith’s version clearly doesn’t need all of this orchestration. It rides on the echoing pain of his vocals, living up to the simplistic nature of his heavily-praised outline. Technically, Peyroux doesn’t need it either. With a voice that warm and smooth, the lush makes for a rich, pensive, tasteful interpretation of a troubling classic. She’s taking her time mouthing every word, showing she has just as much respect for Smith, if not more, than all the other covers that have come before this one.