Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hit or Miss?

Cat Power - Jukebox (Matador, 2008)

This might be the trickiest album I’ve had to review on these pages. I’ve been an admirer of Cat Power, in spite of, or perhaps even because of, her legendary waywardness. I fell rapturously in love with ‘The Greatest’, her collaboration with an outstanding group of Memphis soul musicians, for its languid and subtle combination of soul and sensitivity. Yet, since then, I’ve wondered if this remarkable and original singer-songwriter has begun to lose her individuality. Whilst many admire the Dirty Delta Blues group who have accompanied her on recent tours and on this record, I find them a little heavy-handed and blustery, lacking the nuances of the Hi musicians who performed on ‘The Greatest’. Whilst it’s clear that she’s gained confidence and lost most of her crippling stagefright, I still found her an uncomfortable and meandering live performer, unsure of exactly how to interpret her material and mostly failing to communicate any real feeling.

Some of that hesitancy is also evident here, on an album that seems slightly confused about its identity. Many have suggested that ‘Jukebox’, an album mostly consisting of interpretations, is some kind of sequel to 2000’s ‘The Covers Album’. It isn’t quite that simple, as ‘Jukebox’ contains original song and a reworking of her own ‘Metal Heart’, which appeared in much starker form on the ‘Moon Pix’ album. Also, whilst ‘The Covers Album’ gave a revealing tour through Chan Marshall’s formative influences, ‘Jukebox’ seems more of an attempt to cement her current repositioning as a soul singer. She can certainly be soulful, but I’m not sure she is a ‘soul singer’ in the traditional sense at all. She’s certainly not helped much by her band here, who plod fairly relentlessly, oblivious to any need for light or shade in either dynamic or texture. Occasionally, the songs build gradually, but these predictable crescendos often merely serve to swamp her vulnerable singing.

Marshall’s phrasing is deliberately vulnerable and conversational. In live performance, this often makes her seem insecure and uncertain, but on disc, it can completely redefine the mood of a song. Her handling of ‘New York, New York’ that opens this collection completely abandons the macho swagger that underpins Sinatra’s version and replaces it with a keening desperation and longing. It doesn’t just say ‘if I can make it there’, it says ‘I need to make it there, but how on earth do I get there, and what will happen to me if I fail?’. It’s a distinctive and powerful reading, but it surely deserves a less leaden accompaniment. Recording this, and ‘Don’t Explain’, are audacious moves, given the song’s inseparable associations with particular artists (Sinatra in the case of the former, Billie Holliday and Nina Simone in the case of the latter). Yet there’s no denying that Chan Marshall imbues each with distinctive personality.

Less successful is her inversion of James Brown’s ‘Lost Someone’, which attempts to replace the emotional excess of the original with something ambiguous and non-committal. Unfortunately, it just ends up sounding hazy and tentative, and it certainly doesn’t move this listener. Similarly, the version of Bob Dylan’s evangelical ‘I Believe In You’ is all bluster and no fervour, with Marshall’s vocal seeming oddly disconnected and dispassionate, bathed in far too much reverb. At times, she’s completely overshadowed by the basic and uninteresting backing, mumbling unintelligibly in the background. It’s also arguable that her take on ‘Aretha, Sing One For Me’ strays too far from the melody and loses its celebratory impact, although the band ironically handle this one with more control.

I can’t help feeling that Marshall fares much better on the more country-tinged material here, where the backing is delicate and simple and the band take a backseat. ‘Silver Stallion’ and ‘Lord, Help the Poor and Needy’ are particularly gripping. Her version of Dan Penn’s ‘Woman Left Lonely’ is also aching and touching, and finds that neat intersection between the American folk and soul traditions that Penn so skilfully mastered. Best of all is her own ‘Song To Bobby’, a fascinating personal tribute to Bob Dylan that suggests her enthusiasm may have been akin to romantic infatuation. It’s also the album’s musical highpoint, carefully arranged and performed.

At its best, ‘Jukebox’ is an intriguing and compelling proposition, with Marshall sounding sensuous and mesmerising. Yet her precise intentions are often frustratingly obfuscated by the contradictory impulses at work here. She obviously desires to completely reinvent these songs but it also occasionally sounds like a parallel attempt to capture some form of authenticity has left the music rooted too firmly in the conventional.

1 comment:

SMc said...

Another live review stinker in yesterday's Guardian (1 out of 5,,2248378,00.html)...she seems desperately, boringly self-absorbed and has been given far too much benefit of the doubt for far too long. She should've taken that Chanel modelling gig which would've played to her strengths, ie prettiness, vanity...