Cat Power, ‘Jukebox’ (Matador)
Chan Marshall can make Cat Power out of anything: Give the woman instructions for an Ikea bookshelf and she’ll deliver harrowing heartbreak and unimpeachable soul; let her run free with her favorite songs and you’ll question the integrity of the originals. Yet something slightly mitigates undiluted love of these Cat-Powered interpretations, and that’s Cat Power originals. Jukebox, Marshall’s second album-length collection of (mostly) cover versions (after 2000’s The Covers Record), offers rich glimpses into her talent, but never unveils the fully satisfying spectrum of Chan singing Chan.
But that’s a minor complaint, considering how she transforms these songs. For the bulk of Jukebox, Marshall and her band Dirty Delta Blues (which includes, among others, drummer Jim White of the Dirty Three and guitarist Judah Bauer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, rather than the Memphis soul legends who populated 2006’s The Greatest) reshape the compositions with minimalist care, leaving room for her prodigious, sometimes overwhelming personality. She’s unafraid to be unfaithful, and that’s Jukebox‘s greatest strength: The vocal melody and cadence that Frank Sinatra riveted to “New York, New York” disappears as Marshall effortlessly replaces big-band bravado with a soulful vamp that’s unrecognizable save for the lyrics.
Not even the words are safe on Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man,” which she recasts as “Ramblin (Wo)man,” using the original more as an outline than a blueprint: Where Williams’ version recalls a clacking train, Marshall sounds as if she’s filled with desert wanderlust. She’s more reverent with James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” though the longing and urgency increase via a slower burn (and to prove her desire, Brown’s “a million to one” becomes “a trillion to one”). The Dirty Delta Blues mostly hang back, smartly: They give color to Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” with humming organ and piano; but the star remains Marshall’s wounded voice.
At least until Bob Dylan shows up. First, there’s the cover of his Jesus-rules-era “I Believe in You,” which is Jukebox‘s weakest spot, but serves as a lead-in to the collection’s only new composition, the beguilingly funny “Song to Bobby.” It’s by no means Marshall’s greatest or even most personal song, but it’s her most unusual, since it’s so specifically linear: She recounts her obsession with Dylan and then narrates their real-life 2007 meeting. “Backstage pass in my hand / Giving you my heart was my plan… / Can I finally tell you to be my man?” she asks, melting away an idiosyncratic mystery that she’s spent years constructing, while adding another layer of delightful strangeness. With Dylan acting as a bridge between the covers and her originals, Marshall finds intriguing new shadows to stalk. The journey is less emotionally fraught than her best work, but just as revealing.