Review by Heather Phares
Eight years is a long time in almost any artist's career, but in Cat Power's case, it's an even more sizable gulf, as Chan Marshall's collections of other people's songs reflect. Released in 2000, The Covers Record found her becoming an ever more nuanced performer, tempering the rawness and intensity of her earlier albums with a lighter approach. Arriving in 2008, Jukebox reaffirms what a polished artist she's become, especially since her Memphis soul homage The Greatest. But where The Greatest sometimes bordered on slick, Jukebox's blend of country, soul, blues, and jazz feels lived-in and natural. Marshall recorded this set with her touring act, the Dirty Delta Blues Band, featuring some of indie rock's finest players, including her longtime drummer, the Dirty Three's Jim White -- who gives even the quietest moments vitality -- as well as Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Judah Bauer and Chavez's Matt Sweeney, so it's not surprising that the album often plays like an especially well-recorded concert. However, some of the session legends she worked with on The Greatest make guest appearances, including Teenie Hodges and Spooner Oldham. Oldham's song for Janis Joplin, "A Woman Left Lonely," appears here, and the original's sophisticated yet earthy sound is one of the album's biggest influences.
As on The Covers Record, Marshall makes bold choices. She citifies Hank Williams' "Ramblin' Man" (switched to "Ramblin' [Wo]Man" here), turning it slinky and smoky with spacious drums and rippling Rhodes; despite the very different surroundings, the song's desperate loneliness remains. Joni Mitchell's icily beautiful "Blue" gets a thaw and a late-night feel that are completely different but just as compelling. Not all of Jukebox's transformations are this successful: Marshall's penchant for turning formerly brash songs brooding (like The Covers Record's "Satisfaction") sounds too predictable on Frank Sinatra's "New York." And, while the choice to change James Brown's "I Lost Someone" from searing and pleading to languid was brave, the results fall flat. One of the most drastic remakes is Marshall's own Moon Pix track "Metal Heart," which adds more drama and dynamics to one of her prettiest melodies. While the way this version swings from aching verses to cathartic choruses works, the subtlety and simplicity of the original are missed. Indeed, many of Jukebox's best moments are the simplest. Marshall's reworking of the Highwaymen's 1990 hit "Silver Stallion" frees the song from its dated production, replacing it with acoustic guitar and pedal steel that impart a timeless, restless beauty. She pays Bob Dylan homage with a gritty, defiant, yet reverent take on "I Believe in You" from his 1978 Christian album Slow Train Coming and "Song to Bobby," Jukebox's lone new track, dedicated to and inspired by Dylan so thoroughly that she borrows his trademark cadences without sounding like an impersonation. Uneven as it may be, Jukebox is still a worthwhile portrait of Chan Marshall's artistry. [The deluxe edition of Jukebox comes with a bonus disc of five more covers that are even better than the ones on the album proper, including a languidly sexy reading of Nick Cave's "Breathless" and a rollicking "Naked, If I Want To," originally by Moby Grape.]
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since Cat Power's last covers record in 2000. In the intervening eight years, she has undergone a musical and characteristic evolution that's as surprising as it may have been necessary. Following her 2004 album You Are Free, which perfected her music's transformation to scrawled blues folk, she appeared on Handsome Boy Modeling School's otherwise vanilla White People. Her track, "I've Been Thinking", was a risky gambit that moved beyond the introverted waif persona of previous albums and revealed a new facet of Cat Power: credible soul singer. The point of "I've Been Thinking", which still holds up, is its sultriness; it's a striptease on a dare, complete with smoky ambience, a halting chorus, and an unbelievable spoken-word passage. Speed it up, add a flashier beat, and the song could be a Beyonce hit.
That track signaled a newly emboldened Marshall, as she began to refine her emotionally precarious live shows. For her next album, The Greatest, she would return to Memphis, the birthplace of her 1996 Matador debut What Would the Community Think, to fully embrace soul music, recording with members of Al Green's Hi Records band. Her trajectory is familiar, but the unspectacular Jukebox, a sort of sequel to The Covers Record, reaffirms what she's gained during this musical growth spurt, and what she's lost.
Marshall has become a confident and charismatic vocalist, with subtle nuances and deft combinations of phrasing styles. She's no powerhouse like Aretha Franklin or Irma Thomas, but she sings well in a low, smoky croon, just a notch above conversational. I would have loved to see Marshall wander a few blocks south of Hi and end up at Stax, either recording with the MGs (how natural she would sound with Steve Cropper) or maybe with Isaac Hayes circa Hot Buttered Soul (who could do orchestral wonders with her songs). Instead, Marshall has moved a few decades forward, assembling a band of 1990s contemporaries for Jukebox. Jim White, the Dirty Three drummer who backed her on Moon Pix, and Judah Bauer, late of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, pound out dramatic accompaniment, but are never quite as smooth, as supple, or as inventive as her Greatest band.
Marshall uses these covers albums not so much as a personal mixtape but as a state-of-the-career address. Like The Covers Record, a more self-critical work that traced her own influences through rock and folk, Jukebox exposes the roots of her newfound soulfulness. At a time when genres seem discouragingly fragmented and crossovers few and far between, Jukebox is admirably diverse, straddling country, blues, R&B, folk, and showtunes. Few other albums, at least in the indie realm, will skip so effortlessly from Hank Williams to James Brown, from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin, from Jessie Mae Hemphill to the Highwaymen.
Marshall sounds most comfortable with the country songs. Changing the pronouns in Williams' "Ramblin' (Wo)Man", she instills the song with a bluesy drama that's all grit and wanderlust. Similarly, she plays up the erotic twang in the Highwaymen's "Silver Stallion", stripping the song it to its barest acoustic accompaniment. I doubt Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash considered the sexual implications of a line like, "Just a touch of sadness in his fingers/ Thunder and lightning in his thighs"; they were talking about a horse, but Marshall gamely emphasizes the entendre. Marshall even covers herself again, as she did on The Covers Record: Her new band generates some bluster on the Jukebox reworking of "Metal Heart", originally a standout track on 1998's Moon Pix, but never exhibits the dynamic and control of the original.
Aside from the supremely awkward reinterpretation of "New York New York", the soul covers are the least impressive here. Marshall's pleading doesn't sound credible or committed on James Brown's "Lost Someone" or George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me". She doesn't savor these songs the way she savored "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Sea of Love" on The Covers Record. The woman who got such an obvious kick out of doing her best Bob Dylan on "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" on the I'm Not There soundtrack is largely absent here, even on the sluggish cover of Bob's Christian-era "I Believe in You".
It's worth noting that Jukebox's best moment comes not with a cover, but with a Cat Power original-- and fitting, too, that it's a mash note to Dylan. On the epistolary "Song for Bobby" she recounts in conversational lyrics her youthful infatuation with Dylan and how her professional love for him blurred into something like romantic affection. The song is funny, endearing, and even revealing. Still, a covers album like Jukebox should reveal new facets of a performer in its selection and interpretation of favorite songs. That's how (and why) The Covers Record worked. But eight years later, only "Song for Bobby" tells us anything new about Chan Marshall. The rest of Jukebox doesn't even say much about Cat Power.
-Stephen M. Deusner, January 21, 2008