There's safety in covers. Imagine the appeal, for a fragile, unsettled soul, of losing yourself in someone else's blues, delving into a stranger's dramas, and not having to dredge up any of your own. Chan Marshall, who performs as Cat Power, has turned often and with great success to other people's music. A fine songwriter in her own right, she's just released "Jukebox," her second full-length collection of (mostly) covers. It's a gripping portrait of the artist as a bold interpreter.
That's not to say that singing someone else's songs is an emotional cop-out. For Marshall, who's grown stronger and more nuanced with every album and a more reliable performer with each concert tour, it's one more stop on the road to self-discovery.
Thursday night at the Orpheum, Marshall played most of "Jukebox" and a handful of other tunes that have been rejiggered to suit her current band, the Dirty Delta Blues, and this year's sound, country soul. It's a gritty, earthy extension of the lush Memphis pop she plumbed on 2006's "The Greatest," and Marshall is clearly enchanted with her new game. The set spanned Kander and Ebb's "New York" (stripped of half its name and all its bravado), the Highwaymen hit "Silver Stallion," and James Brown's "Lost Someone" - languid on the recording, shuffling in the live show. So dedicated is Marshall to the idea of reinvention that she covered herself on the album, and in concert, transforming 1998's "Metal Heart" from a pretty ballad into a searing dirge.
Nothing short of vision is required to funnel such disparate material - not to mention Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, and a heartbreaking version of "The Dark End of the Street" - through a single aesthetic lens. This was a Southern soul show, top to bottom, laid back to start and lively at the back end. Marshall pulled it off without pretension and, for much of the show, in near darkness.
The spotlight simply vanished after a few songs, probably at the frontwoman's request. Despite her restlessness - this is a woman who bounces during ballads, paces through the blues, and finishes songs on the floor - Marshall is a team player. Unfortunately, that meant her excellent band occasionally overpowered her voice (once a raw, cathartic instrument that now unfurls like sheer ribbon), and we would miss a telling catch in her breath or the shimmer at the end of a phrase.
But there was no mistaking who's the boss. When keyboardist Gregg Foreman bullied the audience into standing up, Marshall stepped in to say we didn't have to listen. "Sit down," she instructed, and then launched into Patsy Cline's "She's Got You," the night's saddest, quietest song.
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.