Cover versions, whether transcendent or terrible, are a bit like home remodeling in that they generally employ three approaches: redecoration, renovation, and complete demolition.
Chan Marshall utilizes all three modes on "Jukebox," her new Cat Power album out today, and ends up with a record that has both immense curb appeal and inviting interior warmth.
A sequel of sorts to "The Covers Record" from 2000, "Jukebox" tackles houses built by some estimable songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and Marshall herself (a stripped-down rendition of "Metal Heart").
Among the most radical departures is opener "New York, New York." Marshall straps on Kander and Ebb's vagabond shoes and strays to a Big Apple that is less about Sinatra-style swagger and more about the pulsating undercurrents and shadowy corners of the metropolis. As a sultry organ and loose drums melt away the familiar kick-line rhythms in favor of sensual amble, Marshall sings about wanting to be a part of it with a sense of tentative wonder. Her hypnotic murmur might have appealed to the "Wee Small Hours"-era Chairman of the Board.
The gender is flipped for Williams's "Ramblin' (Wo)Man," but the conflicting feelings of remorse, resignation, and resentment are lodged as firmly in her throat as they were in Hank's yodel as she inhabits the unapologetically itinerant narrator.
The album's two standouts are a study in contrast. Marshall boils down "Woman Left Lonely" (written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and sung by Janis Joplin) to its Scotch and self-pity essence. Her rasp is quieter and her attack more passive-aggressive, but she still compels the listener to lean in and feel the sting of the sadness. That pathos is achingly echoed in the restless twitch of cymbals and a melancholy piano line.
The self-esteem levels rise demonstrably on Dylan's "I Believe in You" as Marshall backs the winner inside and the kicky drums bolster her determination. Dylan is the object of the album's sole new original, "Song to Bobby." Whether the slight vocal impersonation of Dylan at his dustiest and most verbose is intentional, her tale of life-long fanaticism has a cute charm that never sacrifices the Gothic homage.
Fans of 2006's "The Greatest" will appreciate the similarly woozy, dawn's-early-light sensibility of the arrangements here courtesy of her Dirty Delta Blues band. Swells of Hammond B3 organ seep into the tunes like smoke under a doorjamb, and the prevailing humid, Southern soul breezes carry welcome traces of country, gospel, folk, and rock.
In recent years Marshall has successfully battled emotional and substance-abuse issues and transformed her performances from bizarre, near-meltdowns to bold, soulful celebrations. A tender fragility still touches her music, effectively so, but these strong interpretations feel like another step toward strengthening her own foundations.