Matador, 2008

Chan Marshall walks into a Manhattan recording studio, one arm weighed down by a stack of vinyl and the other carrying a large Starbucks cappuccino. She sits down on a couch by the mixing desk and begins rifling through the records, absently muttering to herself “Nah, done that. Maybe. Could do. Think so. Definitely!” sorting out the larger pile into a smaller one.

Her new assembled band of boys, the Dirty Delta Blues Band stand to one side watching, wondering what their band leader is suggesting by way of action. Chan reaches for her coffee from a nearby table and takes a large swig, wryly thinking to herself how times have changed, before standing up and addressing the assembled with a mischievous grin, “Boys…” she begins, pointing to the small stack of records beside her, “this is our new album.”

Drummer Jim White picks up the stack, thumbs through the worn sleeves, satisfactorily nodding to himself, before stopping at a copy of Marshall’s 1998 release, Moonpix and says “Hold on, you’ve got one of yours in here!” and she replies “Yeah, classics come quicker than you think these days,” affording herself a small laugh. “Oh!” she adds, as if she’d just remembered something important, reaching into her back pocket, and unfolding a piece of paper with a few lyrics and chords scribbled on it, throwing it onto the pile. “Forgot this one. It’s a classic too,” Chan adds with a smile, “or will be one day…”. The records get passed around, from musician to musician, each silently assessing Chan’s choices before all saying in unison “So, what are you going to call it?” Chan shoots them a look of faux disappointment, “Are you kidding me? — Jukebox!” and they all slap their foreheads and laugh, “Of course!” And so it was, or might have been, how the new album from Cat Power came into being.

Georgia-born Chan Marshall a.k.a. Cat Power is a fan of music. This statement is somewhat understated and should be underlined, for someone who has already cherry-picked the choice cuts from her own record collection once before with 2000’s The Covers Record. She is also known to litter set-lists with traditional songs and 70’s AM staples, going as far as recording another eight covers for a 2000 John Peel session, which could almost be seen as extension of the album she was promoting at the time. The critical recognition of The Covers Record album allowed Chan a wider public audience that was in part due to her reinterpretation of the Rolling Stones ode to male disenchantment “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” which dismissed the well-know chorus entirely and opened the world up to Chan’s smoky growl and her stripped back Danelectro guitar strum.

This time round, the tables are turned. Sobriety is on her side and she seems more comfortable with her role as a performer, pushing aside the well-known stage fright that plagued her career. For all intent and purpose, fan-ish conjecture and complaint aside, Chan Marshall is a new person. She has her own house band, a veteran collection of experienced musicians, including Spooner Oldham, long-time companion Jim White of the Dirty Three, and Judah Bauer of Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. Most important of all, she’s on a creative roll from the success of her comeback album of 2006, the justifiably titled The Greatest. So one wonders, with such great talent at her side, and the greater talent within, why tread musical water with an album of other people’s songs?

Such a question is too late in the asking. The record is in our hands and on the stereo. Jukebox begins by way of Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York”. There’s sass and charm imbedded in this brief mid-tempo take which can almost be seen as a “Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to the Stage – Cat Power!” introduction to the album. You can picture her gliding across the floor, vamping it up as her words skip between the notes on Spooner Oldham’s Rhodes piano. She exudes confidence and projects her voice in a way that you rarely come to expect. Segueing neatly into another iconic performer/songwriter, the band tackle Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man” and like she did with “Satisfaction”, Chan reclaims another masculine song, seeing her own reflection in Williams’ wandering words. Chan’s re-recording of her own “Metal Heart” is a major departure from the one glimpsed on Moonpix. Here she unleashes her inner Patti Smith, with an intensity in her voice that shatters the quieted original.

The promising start begins to fade as the album hits a lull in the middle where songs such George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One for Me” and Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You” merely appear as proficient attempts that neither diminish or surpass the originals, nor do they carry that recognisable Chan Marshall stamp. The finer moments are when the instrumentation is simple and it’s Chan’s voice that carries the song, rather than other way round, which is why the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallions” succeeds where “I Believe In You” fails. Her hushed tones and the haunting piano figure in Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” make the song sound even more sinister, where a man tells his woman that he knows she cheats, but he still loves her all the same. The sole new number, the Dylan-inspired “Song for Bobby” turns the lyrics into a fan letter directed at the man himself. Sung in a style that he’s sure to recognise, it’s both a delight and a light moment amongst a brace of downbeat songs that snare the latter half of the album.

One wonders what Jukebox would’ve sounded like had she stuck to her original track list and not omitted Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street”, adding a little more spit and shine, striking an even balance between some of the slower songs. There’s no denying Jukebox has its moments, and that Chan Marshall has produced a worthy and professional sounding collection of influential songs. It’s just that these moments of worth fall a little flat when you’re aware of just what she can come up when the influence is drawn from herself.