Cat Power's Redemption Songs

Jan. 17, 2008
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A lot’s changed in the eight years since Chan Marshall released The Covers Record. Most obviously, Marshall’s stock has risen considerably. Her face no longer graces just the pages of small, indie zines but also the covers of major entertainment publications.

Meanwhile, Marshall has cleaned up her literal and proverbial act. Her current live shows bear little resemblance to the clusterfucks of yore, and according to recent reports, she's sober. These changes, of course, have manifested themselves in her music. Messy, harrowing songs have given way to neat and orderly ones.

The transformation was evident on Cat Power’s heavily promoted 2006 hit The Greatest—an even-tempered album that, despite the superficially weepy chord here and there, never approached the all-out, broken-woman devastation of 2004’s You Are Free—but on her latest album, Jukebox, it's unmistakable. The new Marshall is more invested than ever in perfecting each song, but emotionally, she’s as far removed as she’s ever been.

To be sure, Jukebox is an excellent record, but a workmanlike polish has replaced the intrigue that made Cat Power’s first Covers Record so essential. On that chilling, minimalistic 2000 release, Marshall made every song almost painfully personal—at least the ones that didn’t already arrive that way (“Red Apples” was a cover of a song from her ex-boyfriend, Bill Callahan, that read like a parable about their relationship).

This time out, though, Marshall takes a much more conventional tour of the American songbook, reinventing songs popularized by Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. She still deconstructs each track beautifully—she drains the Vaudevillian swagger from “New York, New York,” for instance, leaving behind a terse blues song—but she’s more interested in exploring the songs that her psyche.

As on The Covers Record, Marshall covers herself once here, inviting her sharp Dirty Delta Blues Band to transform the once-sparse Moon Pix confessional “Metal Heart” into a dramatic torch song. Both versions are effective, but where the original relied on Marshall’s naked vocals, it’s her band that does the heavy lifting this time out, mining emotion from rich guitars and crashing drums as Marshall’s pristine voice stays above the fray. She can be forgiven for keeping a distance. On the wagon and enjoying her good fortune, she knows better than to relive past traumas.


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