Cat Power Comes Back
The legend of Chan Marshall draws its power from her beauty, her Southernness, and her mental illness. Oh, and also from that time she flashed her bush at the readers of The New Yorker. Chan (pronounced "Shawn") has a bio filled with LonelyGirl36 melodrama. It makes juicy snacking for indie fans bored with the dry fare of a Feist feature story. And for critics who aim to separate art from bullshit, there's plenty of the latter to wade through. The singer, who performs under the moniker Cat Power, is currently on an upswing that began when she left a short-term psych ward lockdown to tour triumphantly behind her last release, 2006's The Greatest. Remarkably, delightfully, gratifyingly, we are no longer living in an era of Cat Power performances that crumble into seven kinds of crazy while the audience seeps steadily out the door. This act has gone  days without an accident.
Her current tour celebrates this year's covers album, Jukebox. In interviews, Marshall has confided that she's already completed original material for a record known as The Sun, but she's apparently not yet ready to hatch it. In the broodtime, she's brought the house lights down low again, to let her varnished-smoke croon have its sleepy, spooky way with other people's tunes. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra—these are old names, and Marshall's old soul possesses their work so that she inhabits every inch of it.
The Georgia-born, New York-buzzed chanteuse got her cred from experimental whisperings and wailings in the mid-'90s, and her rep from the tours that followed when she signed to Matador Records. Fans stuck around despite her meltdowns because Marshall's voice is a singular instrument. It's a hard-luck voice, a vintage model with a rich patina. And Marshall has a self-sacrificing spirit that would take a leap off a cliff if she thought her pipes might want to explore the experience.
Backed by new comrades the Dirty Delta Blues Band, she creates a witchy brew out of Hank Williams's "Ramblin' Man"—refashioned here as "Ramblin' (Wo)man." Tellingly, what Marshall adds, between the alcoholic shimmer of the keys and the icy-wind howl of drawn-out guitar notes, are anguished cries of "I love you." I don't think Hank would find it a fit sentiment for cowboys.
I'm also betting Sinatra would be nonplussed to hear all his hearty, dopey optimism scrubbed from "New York." In Marshall's version, whatever promise the city holds might have something to do with its easily located network of methadone clinics.
But there are hearts much nearer to Chan Marshall's own whose work is paid tribute here. Janis Joplin's "Woman Left Lonely" is fittingly tender and aching, while on Mitchell's "Blue," the album's closer, Marshall's voice drifts up from a thick murk of organ and hangs there heavily for mere moments before fading into the dense indigo swamp.
My second-favorite song is the Highwaymen cover, "Silver Stallion," which is understated and, while much slower than the original, has an energy equal to its romantic Western imagery of "Riding like the one-eyed jack of diamonds with the devil close behind."
But the best track is Cat covering Cat. Her take on "Metal Heart," originally from her 1998 album Moon Pix, opens with simple, clean piano chords. When Marshall's voice enters, it's chillingly low, as if coming from the demon inside her. By the time the song crescendos into the tormented cry, "Metal heart, you're not worth a thing," her despair transforms into a victorious reproach.
(My least favorite recent Cat Power cover is her rendition of Cat Stevens's "How Can I Tell You?" which we all heard 70 jillion times over Christmas in that Diamonds Unlimited commercial where yuppies sneak jewels on each other during the night.)
Jukebox also boasts a single newly minted song, a fan letter to Bob Dylan called "Song for Bobby." It's a gently rambling account of missed encounters with her hero, ending with the love-struck Marshall finally about to approach Dylan in Paris. The listener doesn't actually get to find out what happens. She might fall apart. Who wouldn't fall apart? But most people never get that far in the first place.
Marshall's proved, on Jukebox, that she has the power to ably possess others. But when it comes to self-possession, we're all still waiting to see what this era of Pax Marshall will bring.
CAT POWER AND THE DIRTY DELTA BLUES BAND perform MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775
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