It could be argued that saying an artist is ‘good at covers’ is a backhanded compliment. However, there is nothing comparable to that of a Cat Power cover version, evident in her latest, rather aptly named, album Covers.
Cat Power nee Chan Marshall is one of modern time’s premium interpreters of popular and established works. Her covers toe the line between nostalgia and newness, as her re-workings often establish a new emotional intensity, feel or genre to her chosen songs. Cat Power proves the need for music to evolve and take on new meanings in the hands of different artists. Looking at the tracklist for this album you may not believe that someone could shift the essence or meaning of it in any profound way. But rest assured Marshall finds a way.
This is the artist’s third album of reinterpretations by classic and contemporary artists. The first being 2000’s The Covers Record, famous for her feminine reworkings of rock and blues classics by The Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones. 2008’s Jukebox saw her challenge country and folk. Covers, however, with its diverse range of musical inspirations and reworkings is arguably the most well-rounded and accomplished album of the trio.
If there were one word to describe Covers, it would be moody. CP mixes modern pop, classic rock, and vintage folk. Opening track Frank Ocean’s ‘Bad Religion’ is nearly unrecognisable from the original. It has simple instrumentation and echoey vocals, making it disconcertingly calming. The song is perfectly produced to demonstrate Marshall’s skill in reanalysing and manipulating songs. It certainly foreshadows the emotional; twists and turns she will take on the following eleven songs.
Even Marshall is not exempt from her reworking and introspection, the following song ‘Unhate’ is a new take on her own 2006 ‘Hate’. The opening instrumentation and vocals are reminiscent of recent Portishead, grand and rich. And again ‘Unhate’ aligns with my earlier declaration of moodiness. There is something of the femme fatale with the combination of tempestuous guitar, jaunty keyboard, and rattling drums.
The third song on the album, an unexpected highlight, is ‘Pa Pa Power’. The surprise stems from the discovery that the track was by Dead Man’s Bones, the band featuring actor Ryan Gosling. I didn’t know when anyone was going to tell me Ryan Gosling was in a band, but Miss Power decided that now was a good time. I must say it was an obscure choice, but the bassy opening and soft indie-pop guitar licks pulled the listener in straight away.
As the album unfolds, Marshall’s sense of space within music comes to the fore. Her overdubbing, layering, and repetition create a whole world and story within one song. She places a smoke screen between the listener, her instruments and herself – affecting the essence of every song in groundbreaking ways. Her rendition of Lana Del Rey’s ‘White Mustang’ presents a struggle between battlement and embracement with Marshall’s vocals and the growing intensity of her band. ‘Against The Wind’ sees the most interesting experimentation of tempo and instruments out of the entire album. Kitty Wells’ ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ is a mellow jazz-blues number, transporting the listener to the back of a dark lit bar. We truly see Marshalls’ technical intellect and experimentation in its finest and most refined form.
But not only that, she shows courage. I have never personally heard a successful Pogues cover (and trust me, I would love some recommendations). But Marshall’s take on ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ is something to behold. She retains some Irish charms with her folk, choir-like inspirations but offers something newly feminine to the song. Something very impressive considering the original’s context, of two men destroyed by alcoholism, struggling with heartbreak and war, finding their solace in song. Cat Power finds her own solace, taking inspiration from her struggle with alcohol. She finds a community within the long history of heartbroken lyricists.
Power delves further into her struggles with ‘Here Comes a Regular’. She ditches guitar for piano, making for a very sad song indeed.. A bereft self-reflecting on nights spent out. It feels incredibly personal: as if it were a eulogy for a previous life, Lyrics such as: “I used to live at home, now I stay at the house” have a bittersweetness, as Marshall reflects on her youth, ageing, addiction and recovery.
In my notes, while listening to the seventh track of this album, I wrote: “Endless Sea is endlessly cool”. A statement that I obviously thought was endlessly witty. But it’s true! Quite an obscure choice from Iggy Pop, Marshall transforms the song into a relaxed, bluesy track with half-spoken, half-sung vocals.I also wrote about the song, in capital letters: ‘PERCUSSION’.
Jackson Browne’s “These Days” was declared a “sunset-watching song” in my notebook, which means nothing substantial but feels right in its intent. The track reminds me of a lot of Yusuf/Cat Stevens, calm and comforting. Definitely a song to relax to. The same goes for the final track ‘Everyone wants to be Special Here’. The two songs certainly belong on a playlist somewhere entitled: ‘calm songs to meditate to’ or ‘lonely country walks’.
The only stumbling block on the album comes courtesy of Nick Cave’s ‘I Had a Dream, Joe’ – is nothing extraordinary. Not to say it’s bad, but certainly not enthralling. And in an album full of enthralling tracks, it’s something to note.
Cover records are often overlooked, seen as a carefree fun, rather than a true show of artistic capabilities. But – with Covers – Cat Power proves this point to be wrong, creating something incredibly powerful, devastating and creative.
covers is out now via Domino Recording Co.
photo credit: Mario Sorrenti