Paul Simon and Chan Marshall — Cat Power, that is — share one thing. I remember Paul Simon, in interviews around the time Surprise was released, talked a lot about how his music is primarily an exercise in creating and perfecting sonic atmospheres. However more sophisticated his musical vocabulary, Marshall has demonstrated, especially on her covers records, a kinship with this objective. There’s more than one difference, of course. For one thing, Marshall is gorgeous (Stereogum’s 2006 Miss Indie Rock, e.g., and still in the top six in ’08). And especially on that one video, for “Lived in Bars”, where she kisses the craggy, real people, she has this saint-like benevolence and of-us goofiness that, together, creates a powerful fantasy. Not trying to destroy that – far from it – but as the glamor shot-to-original music ratio increases, you begin to suspect her priorities may be shifting. And unfortunately, on Dark End of the Street, Marshall doesn’t capture “Lived in Bars”’s sweet, cheeky-melancholic note.
Marshall’s covers albums in particular have never been about proving anything – her good taste, her legitimate musicianship, whatever. She’s generally taken a rather liberal approach to her source material, crafting gentle re-contextualisations of a variety of much loved songs from iconoclastic artists. And on both 2000’s The Covers Record and Jukebox, Marshall approaches each cover as a personal exploration. She delivers these songs as if they are so valued she can’t let go of them. She savours each word, much more than she does her own material. This worked for her well on songs like “Ramblin’ (Wo)man” and “Sea of Love”. But on this latest mini-collection Marshall strays towards the melodramatic; and while her voice is as distinctive and smoky as ever, there’s something overblown about the warbled refrain of “Ye Auld Triangle” that she deftly avoids on the strongest material of her own.
It seems a long time since Jukebox, which was released in January this year. But you wouldn’t want this follow-up EP to have been released earlier, despite the end-of-year, bonus-for-fans feel – the songs on Dark End of the Street come from the Jukebox recording sessions, and have an almost identical tone and feel. That they didn’t make the cut for the full-length might tell you something, and that something might be: despite the quality of the source material, most of the re-interpretations lack that spark that makes a cover version really shine.
Despite one or two complete misses (especially the enervated version of “Fortunate Son” – best to skip right over that), the arrangements and performances on Dark End of the Street are as tight and professional as those on Jukebox. Sure, we might come to expect a slowed-down, plaintive re-interpretation at this point, but it still manages to communicate Marshall’s sincere love for this music. And on “Dark End of the Street” and the Pogues’ classic “Ye Auld Triangle” especially, it turns out sweet and engaging. But overall, somehow, you remain unconvinced of emotion here. Perhaps it’s because in the climactic version of the refrain of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, where it goes high, and the backing guitars and drums have thickened texture to a sludgy drawl, Marshall chooses a light delivery, sliding up to and then quickly off the notes. Her voice, at the top of her range, doesn’t have the power to pull off a soul climax, I guess.
That’s ultimately why Dark End of the Street is disappointing – not because it’s bad, but because we want this unique performer to demonstrate some of her special sparkle. If this EP sounds monochromatic it may be that this was the only way Marshall could parse her soul influences. It’s an exploration of a sonic atmosphere, sure. But if she let just a bit more of her own personality come forward, I think we’d be smiling, and enjoying, Dark End of the Street a lot more.