The Chan Marshall you’ll hear on Jukebox is drastically different from the one you’ll hear on 2000’s The Covers Record. The years in between those records have yielded a personal and musical transformation for the Cat Power singer. She has, most recently, found sobriety, recorded an album with Al Green’s band, and shaken off her notorious stage fright. All of this has done wonders for her, both live and in the studio. With The Greatest, and now Jukebox, Marshall sounds more polished and professional than ever. It doesn’t hurt that she surrounds herself with some of the best musicians in American music, but she has stepped up her own talents, too. She sings and plays with a new ease and confidence. The singer who once sounded so full of hurt, so much so it made her a difficult listen, now sounds content, happy, even comfortable.
Of course, its that last one, comfort, that doesn’t help out Jukebox much. It is an album that, top to bottom, sounds very comfortable. The artists she chooses here—Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, Dylan, among others—aren’t surprising. And, for the most part, neither are her takes on these songs. What made The Covers Record so successful was its ability to surprise. We saw Marshall drag the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” out into a dirge. She made “I Found a Reason” transcendent. She stripped the schmaltz from “Sea of Love” and left only the bare, aching emotion.
These surprising turns are nowhere to be found on Jukebox. Instead, Chan Marshall and the band behind her—including the likes of drummer Jim White and songwriting hero Spooner Oldham on keys—take these songs and deliver them all with the same sort of bluesy swing. Which isn’t always a bad thing. The songs all sound good, the band is tight, and Marshall is singing better than she ever has here. Her take on Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ (Wo)man” is fantastic, and probably would have been a better album starter than “New York, New York”, which ends up starting the record with its least effective song. Similarly, her rendition of the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallion” sounds lonelier and quieter than any sound all those country legends could make together.
But many of the other covers sound merely proficient. “Aretha, Sing One for Me” is solid but underwhelming. “Blue” is done in by too much organ noodling over the piano. Even Marshall’s take on her own song, a reworking of Moon Pix‘s “Metal Heart”, sounds bigger than the original, but loses some of the raw edge that the older, more stripped down version provided. The most quaking moment here, the one that taps most into the honest emotion we’ve come to expect from Cat Power, is on the only new Marshall-penned song on the record.
“Song for Bobby” is a hushed and amazing track that finds Marshall telling stories about her growing up on Bob Dylan. About how his music made her feel so close to him. What makes the song work so well is the frustration built into it. As Marshall relates seeing Dylan in concert, in various places at various times, she is constantly trying to articulate a feeling that just can’t be explained. “Can I finally tell you?” she says as the song ends, and you can feel her wishing she had something else to say, something else to tell Dylan what he meant to her, but she doesn’t. Instead there’s a very earnest resignation built into her admiration, as she knows her words will fail her this time.
The cover that comes that close to Chan Marshall the person—where much of the album we get Chan Marshall the performer—is her version of James Brown’s “Lost Someone”. It just sounds deeper than the rest of these songs and it sounds the least rehearsed. Marshall blurts some lines out and holds some back to whisper out between her teeth. It is a song that uses great musicianship to hold up Marshall’s greatest strengths, rather than taming them, which happens all too often on Jukebox.
This is all to say that this is an album that sounds very good. It is even a little playful. Most of the songs fade out abruptly, hearkening back to so many of the old records these covers come from. And Marshall is clearly enjoying herself on the record. And really, if it were any other artist, maybe there wouldn’t be so much pressure put on a covers record to deliver. But, the fact is, Marshall already nailed this sort of thing once. So while no one is asking for a rehash, or a step backwards musically, it might have been nice to get a version of Jukebox that just had a little more of her on it. As a state-of-the-career, Jukebox works. But, coming from an artist that has given us so much in the past, that just might not be enough.