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Agnes Obel’s “Between the Bars,” or how a cover can get you dismissed

Agnes Obel’s “Between the Bars,” or how a cover can get you dismissed (photo)

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Agnes Obel – Between The Bars (Elliott Smith cover) iTunes Live From Paris EP by Girlie Action

Danish singer/ songwriter Agnes Obel is a bona fide star at home in Europe, with big sales and shows across much of the continent during the last year. When I saw her play in Norway this Winter during Oslo’s by:Larm conference, a rapt audience hung on every piano note she played and every tale she told between songs. It was as if she was slated to emerge spontaneously as an international sensation, and they’d hate to miss a moment of the metamorphosis.

But Obel has struggled to meet those expectations across the Atlantic, despite many favorable notices in the press and over-reaching comparisons to Joanna Newsom and Cat Power. Those two have taken many more musical chances than Obel on her half-there, even if occasionally stunning debut album, Philharmonics, and that’s the idea to which apathetic American audiences seem to be reacting–or, as it were, not reacting. Plenty of songwriters here, both male and female, have recently made restrained, pensive and pretty records, so why bother with Obel?

I’m afraid that Obel’s latest gambit–the simple but romantically entitled digital EP, Live from Paris–won’t help. Mostly, it reintroduces songs from Philharmonics, including the memorable “Riverside,” but the first public glimpse from the short set is “Between the Bars,” a cover of the 1997 Elliott Smith tune. Obel only plays acoustic guitar and sings here, brooding through the verses with a straightforward strum. It echoes Smith’s bittersweet look at love, but nothing more; it’s plainly boring. The cover galvanizes many of the hold-ups I’ve had with Obel. That is, she seems to have a simple shortage of ideas and experience, so that the best she can do with a Smith song is play it without his rhythmic intricacy, sing it without his subtle mix of feelings. It makes me worry that Obel’s reluctance to experiment on Philharmonics is more than a hesitation; maybe this is all she’s got.

At their best, covers can not only reinvent a song you’ve loved or remind you of something about the song that you’d forgotten you loved but also expand your notion of that artist–their capabilities, their sensibilities, their appreciation of something beyond their ostensible comfort zone and their ability to do something special with it. A recent compendium of covers by Bon Iver gathered at Stereogum, for instance, shows not only Justin Vernon’s interest in songs that aren’t his own but also the breadth of those interests. The expected suspects are there, like Tom Petty and Neil Young. But there’s also the old country favorite “A Satisfied Mind” and Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song,” as well as tunes by Carole King, Annie Lennox and the goddamn Outfield. Vernon’s collection of covers helps make his own songs make more sense; unfortunately, Obel’s cover of Smith helps her young career–and likely future–make too much sense.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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