Chan Marshall has been up to something. And it's another covers record! Recording under the moniker Cat Power, she's been bringing her own brand of keyed-down, melancholy piano pop for years, dabbling with a covers album a few years ago. Known for her basic songwriting and use of traditional song form, it's not such a surprise or a stretch for her to record the songs she did.
The album starts out with a re-tooled "New York, New York." Featuring a laid-back, driving beat and some sleazy city jazz guitar and keys, Miss Marshall has reworked the melody completely, keeping mostly the lyrics as the only identifiable part of the song. And it's a very successful cover. However, this theme is not particularly one that runs throughout the whole album. Easily identifiable and known to almost everyone, "New York, New York" is an excellent choice. She's able to possess the song as her own while paying tribute to a classic. But this would not exactly work for an entire album.
The followup, a cover of "Ramblin' Man" by Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter, is not nearly as recognizable as "New York, New York." The song itself relies on Hank's semi-yodeling to carry the melody. Once again, reworked entirely, the song now fades into Cat Power's back catalog, rightly so as she's even retitled it as "Ramblin' (Wo)man." Next she even covers one of her owns songs from Moon Pix, "Metal Heart."
But just when it seems like a pattern has emerged, Chan decided to preserve the soulful melodies of "Aretha, Sing One for Me," "Lost Someone," and "Lord Help." In this vein, the album feels like a more traditional covers record. But not being extremely familiar with the songs themselves, it leaves me in a position of not being able to comment on them like I'd like to.
And the same goes for the next track, Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You." My knowledge of Dylan feels very comprehensive, yet it's a song I'm not sure I've ever heard before. I can say, however, that Chan's take on the song contains a solid guitar riff and lazy drums.
"Song to Bobby" is a promising track penned by Chan Marshall for this album. It starts slow with some picking and piano and builds into a light, rootsy track with a heavy feel for Dylan. What we learn, here as an audience, is that Chan does a better Dylan impersonation when she's writing her own track than in an interpretation of an actual Dylan song.
Closing out with tracks from Billie Holliday, Janis Joplin, and Joni Mitchell, all three slow, soft, and velvety, Jukebox fades out without a definitive ending. And here it seems that covers are working against her. Lady Day, Janis, and Joni are three of the most famous female vocalists of the twentieth century, all known for the power behind their voices. Chan Marshall's deep, soft whisper doesn't really lend itself to their songs. Instead, the tracks sound like B-sides from her back catalog.
And this brings up the biggest issue with the album. By selecting mainly unknown songs by well-known artists, Cat Power has toyed with our expectations for the album. As a performer, she's reworked the songs to sound like Cat Power tunes. And if the album was presented in that fashion, it wouldn't seem so out of place. But it's the three soul songs in the middle that trip up the consistency. By staying true to the melodies and arrangements, the songs don't gel with the Cat Power originals and her remakes. However, nit-picking the details is usually a sign of a strong offering overall, and it's important to remember that when looking at a covers album, songs should be evaluated one at a time.