Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The sound of settling in

Cat Power
Score: 7

As she did on The Covers Record, Chan Marshall is back to reinterpreting and personalizing others' songs. And like The Covers Record, she doesn't exempt her own material.

With the Memphis Rhythm Band out (though Mabon "Teenie" Hodges guests), Marshall collaborates with Judah Bauer on guitar, Erik Paparazzi on bass, Jim White on drums and Gregg Foreman on piano and organ. Among the guests are Matt Sweeney (Zwan, Chavez) and organist Spooner Oldham.

Jukebox has a looser feel than previous Cat Power albums, partly because many songs sound almost live and partly because Marshall demonstrates fewer despondent moments. At the beginning of "Aretha, Sing One for Me," she can even be heard in the studio saying "It's rolling" in response to someone whistling. She also appears to have ceded more control to her bandmates, being credited on the album only for vocals and some arrangements. Perhaps allowing them to take care of the instruments has allowed her to relax a bit.

Of course, you wouldn't know it by the first track. In "New York," she refashions the ode to the Big Apple that Frank Sinatra made famous. Now it's a pensive statement. Instead of a horn section cheering, a keyboard paces around. Instead of punctuating the syllables and lines, Marshall sidles through them. Sinatra took his time, soaking up the spotlight; Marshall doesn't linger.

Two minutes later, she's slipping into something more comfortable: "Ramblin' (Wo)man," a tweak of the Hank Williams standard, and a slower tempo that she seems to welcome. Since the instrumentation changes little from "New York" to "Ramblin' (Wo)man" and the switch between them is so fast, the unsuspecting listener might confuse the two for the same song. Given the quickness of the shift, that might have been the band's intent. The combo is akin to a two-part rock song without being one.

Marshall's take on George Jackson's "Aretha, Sing One for Me" and Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You" don't go over as well. Both are brisker and louder than the songs around them, which isn't by itself a bad thing. In fact, their placement on Jukebox, as No. 5 and No. 8, is a prudent sequencing move. The trouble is that Marshall's hoarse wisp of a voice isn't enough to carry the bigger sounds. The punch of guitar and drums on "I Believe in You" proves too forceful, overpowering her vocals rather than amplifying them. "Aretha, Sing One for Me" mismatches her fairly stiff delivery with a wriggling organ straight out of the Stax catalog. Since Marshall doesn't play off it, or otherwise demonstrate soul, the song falls flat. (She fares better with a stripped-down treatment of James Brown's "Lost Someone.")

As usual, the quiet realm is where Marshall's most-penetrating songs reside. "Metal Heart" and "Song to Bobby," both originals, find her dealing with internal conflicts. "Metal Heart," which in itself incorporates two lines from the hymn "Amazing Grace," previously appeared on Moon Pix. Here, it's unsheathed from its aimless guitar shuffle and muddy multitracked vocals, and it shines anew as a piano-driven piece. When Marshall sings, "Metal heart, you're not hiding / metal heart, you're not worth a thing," it's almost anthemic.

"Song to Bobby," about finally professing an undying love, finds Marshall, who contributed to the I'm Not There soundtrack, in full-on Dylan mode. Along with his inflection, she rolls out lyrics like this:

"Oh how I wanted to tell you
That I was just only 400 miles away
Who could believe that you were calling?
I was in deceit: I was 400 miles behind"

And doing another folk icon proud, she and the band add a different dimension to Joni Mitchell's "Blue." The clarity in the original is replaced by a drift through moral ambiguity. Key to this version, besides Marshall's languid delivery, are the murky synths, which imply a clouded mind. Their haze envelopes Marshall as she stares at hedonism's bloated underbelly of "acid, booze, and ass / needles, guns, and grass."

All right, she's not going there. She's just having a look around.

No comments: