Published on February 12th, 2008 | by Hans Fruck0
Cat Power — Jukebox
Covers are tricky. Duplicating an original song is pointless, but so is making it unrecognisable. Some artists walk this tightrope better than others, able to add their own spin without violating the original’s virtues. Sometimes on Jukebox, her second covers album, Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, walks this tightrope fearlessly; sometimes she falls.
The disc starts with a retread of the Minnelli/Sinatra standard New York. Introduced via an unexpectedly slinky beat, it takes a couple of lines before your slightly disoriented mind works out exactly what you’re listening to. It’s a bold move – pity it doesn’t work better. Once the incongruity fades, the song seems brief and slight, almost like Marshall isn’t committed to her own reworking.
Coming off the acclaimed, but disappointing, 2006 release, The Greatest, Jukebox sees Marshall with a different backing band, Dirty Delta Blues, which consists of Dirty Three’s Jim White, Delta 72’s Gregg Foreman, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer and Lizard Music’s Erik Papparozzi. This band seems more in sync with Marshall’s sensibility than her band on The Greatest, which at times seemed offputtingly jaunty for Marshall’s fragile, introspective songs.
Other tracks on the album include moderately successful versions of the Hank Williams song Ramblin Man, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, James Brown’s Lost Someone, and Dylan’s I Believe in You. It’s not that Marshall vandalises any of these tunes – they’re just not particularly memorable. Better are her versions of Don’t Explain (made famous by Billie Holliday and Nina Simone), which boasts lovely piano and vocals with a sense of drama and trajectory too often absent on Jukebox. Also good is Woman Left Lonely, most famously recorded by Janis Joplin.
It’s probably predictable that the best track on the album, Metal Heart, is Cat Power covering herself. Perhaps after paying due deference to everyone else’s tunes, reworking your own is liberating? Whatever, Metal Heart is expansive and full of emotion and energy. Previously, the song was understated, but here Marshall brings out the emotion previously withheld, showing another side of an already great song. (Note for fans: Song to Bobby is a Cat Power original addressed to Bob Dylan.)
But there’s a sameness to Jukebox. Partly, this is due to the similarity of some of the source material. But partly, it’s different tunes getting the same treatment: slow tempos, sparse instrumentation, reverb-heavy vocals, similar phrasing. This treatment can be mellow and pleasant, but it can also leech the songs of their individuality, reducing them to a similar set of vocal and compositional tics.
All in all, Jukebox is pleasant but not great. It reminds you of how fine Moon Pix and You Are Free are, and makes you wish Cat Power would get back to what she does best: her own songs.