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Chan Marshall, Cat Power’s sole permanent member, is indie-rock by choice but Southern, as they say, by the grace of God. The singer-guitarist-pianist misspent her formative years traveling below the Mason-Dixon line, scouring the landscape—and her own fractured psyche—for the fragmented images and psychodramas that populate the songs on her first four amazingly dark records.
For the uninitiated, 1998’s Moon Pix is the best of that bunch: a tossed-off, ramshackle collection of faux-blues and bad vibes that includes one song so great (“Cross Bones Style”), you’ll wish you’d written it. Like each of the Cat Power albums, Moon Pix positions Marshall as indie rock’s anti-Jewel. There are no soft edges to her music, nothing even remotely uplifting. And Marshall has apparently never met the song that wouldn’t sound better as a tense, brooding dirge.
On The Covers Record, the singer pushes that aesthetic past the legal limit, uncovering, if you will, songs such as the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Bill Callahan’s “Red Apples” and finding, buried deep inside their well-worn crevices, powerfully dismal incantations, as though the tracks contained the seeds of their own undoing all along. It’s no accident that Marshall’s version of the Stones’ classic skips the song’s payoff title line. Truly, there is no satisfaction here, and why get all cathartic about it when you can warp that frustration into harrowingly beautiful art?
As legend and press kits have it, Cat Power’s first two albums (Dear Sir and Myra Lee) were each recorded in a single day. Sessions for The Covers Record occurred over the course of two years, but the new album is still shot through with the same eerie immediacy that fuels Marshall’s earlier work. It also sounds similarly on the edge of collapse: Comprising 12 low-powered, inelegantly played “interpretations,” the album is so loosely constructed that it sounds at times as though it might disintegrate if you turned the stereo up too loud. But, just as it is on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (to pick one of Cat Power’s few equally disturbing antecedents), it’s actually the fragility that holds the record together.
Young brought an augmented Crazy Horse along for his ride, using the band’s interplay as a kind of communal antidote to the bleak, solitary edge of Tonight’s death songs. Young’s gift for easy melody also leavened the subject matter. But on The Covers Record, Marshall frequently treats melody as an afterthought, using her oddly sensual voice to zero in on snatches of a tune, often just three or four mournful notes that she repeats like a mantra. And forget about interplay. Except for the atypically playful version of “Salty Dog,” Marshall chooses to go it alone this time out, accompanying herself on guitar and piano—unless, of course, the writers whose songs she covers count for company.
In some cases, they do. The Cat Powered version of Lou Reed’s “I Found a Reason” resonates with the same plaintive longing that gives the original its heartbreaking power, but Marshall’s reading discards most of the lyrics and bypasses the song’s romantic naivete. “You better come to me,” she chants wearily, replacing the Velvet Underground’s softly sweet attempt at seduction with what sounds like a plea to follow her down. When the song stops short, at 1:58, the effect is arresting, almost lurid. It’s also impossibly cold.
Marshall has a blood brother in Will Oldham, who traffics in the same gothic imagery and hymnal cadences that Cat Power frequently favors. But there’s usually a self-consciously cerebral edge to Oldham’s music, an impulse to put songs in quotation marks and comment on them rather than perform them outright. You’d think that temptation would be irresistible on an album of covers, but Marshall takes a different tack. Even though her renditions frequently sound nothing like the originals, on The Covers Record they practically reek of authenticity. Marshall inhabits these songs, using her casually expert phrasing and soulful singing to make the versions sound like Cat Power originals.
Actually, one of them is. Marshall reinterprets herself on “In This Hole,” a complicated puzzle of a song that first appeared as the lead-off track on Cat Power’s third record, What Would the Community Think. The version on that album, her critical breakthrough, features a dark, jangling guitar figure that alternates between stumbling and hypnotic. Here, Marshall replaces the guitar part with heavily reverberated piano, but the song remains more or less the same, with chilling aural atmospherics to spare.
As compelling as The Covers Record sometimes is, though, it’s ultimately a difficult album to recommend, mostly because it’s such a difficult album. Its two easiest pleasures, versions of the Baptiste/Khoury standard “Sea of Love” and Bob Dylan’s “Paths of Victory,” sound perfunctory in the context of the rest of the disc, almost as though Marshall felt obliged to play something—anything—in a major key.
More typical (and more affecting) is Cat Power’s mesmerizing take on Michael Hurley’s “Sweedeedee.” Over a halting backdrop of awkward, finger-picked guitar, Marshall drags half-spoken/half-sung words across pretty country chord changes, lingering delicately over the song’s signature line: “I know everybody has a little hard luck sometimes/I know lately I’ve been having mine.” Don’t be surprised if, at the end of The Covers Record, you find yourself feeling exactly the same way. CP