The audacity of interpretation! Taking songs that are identified with legendary singers and turning them on their heads takes a lot of guts. It also helps to have the talent - and respect for the originals - to make the effort worth a listener’s time. Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, re-interprets, re-invents and revitalizes some old war horses and several overlooked gems as well as offering two self-penned tracks on Jukebox her second album of covers. This is Marshall’s way of paying homage to the vocalist who have inspired her as well as showcasing her own increasingly nuanced vocal style.
Jukebox opens with the Fred Ebb and John Kander classic “New York, New York” (she calls it “New York”), a song immortalized not once but twice – first by Liza Minnelli and then Frank Sinatra. Marshall’s bluesy unorthodox take on the song is almost unrecognizable as the standard. If not for the lyrics I’m not sure I would have made the connection. It’s an uncharacteristic choice for her but it sets the stage for a collection of songs that finds Marshall challenging expectations of her work and our experience of the songs.
Unlike her 2000 cover album, Marshall includes a couple of country ballads and soul standards. Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ (Wo)man” loses its twang factor and becomes a sinewy and sexy torch ballad in her hands while Lee Clayton’s “Silver Stallion” is presented as an acoustic folk ballad with just a trace of country thanks to a whining lap guitar. “Aretha, Sing One For Me” begins with a Keith Richard’s inspired guitar riff and a rock pacing that I’ve not heard on previous Cat Power records. It’s pretty ballsy to take on James Brown’s “Lost Someone” and I found myself missing the passion and pain that Brown brought to that one. On the Billie Holiday classic “Don’t Explain” Marshall channels Jesse Sykes with a slow, sauntering rhythm and languid vocals.
Marshall's re-interpretion of her own composition, “Metal Heart” underscores her development as a more confident and seasoned singer. However, she is at her best when inspired by Bob Dylan. Her earlier covers album featured his music and Jukebox offers a rocking rendition of “I Believe In You” and a new Marshall composition that is a tribute to Dylan. “Song To Bobby” is a sweet folk ballad and highlights the emergence of a unique vocal style that Marshall has only hinted at previously. And that vocal range is tested on Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Lord, Help the Poor & Needy” which maintains the traditional feel of its gospel roots. That gospel feel is resurrected on “Woman Left Lonely” with its organ and piano underpinnings and hushed lamentations. Marshall wraps the album with a mournful, hymn-like take on Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Whether or not you enjoy Chan Marshall’s revisions of these songs will probably come down to your personal relationships with each song and the artist who so indelibly etched it on to your psyche. But sometimes hearing an old song with new ears can remind us of why these songs had such an impact in the first place. You’ve got to give Marshall kudos for her originality and for her good taste in music.