Sunday, February 24, 2008
Jukebox - Cat Power
SCQ Rating: 67%
My girlfriend and I listened to Jukebox for the first time in relative silence during an hour and a half drive. Between songs, we’d hum, shrug, or occasionally crinkle our noses but overall, it was reminiscent of hearing The Greatest for the first time. A lesser version of Dylan electric but close to Ryan Adams with the Cardinals, I recall The Greatest requiring an arm’s length of buffer room for most Cat Power fans. Chan Marshall’s direction had changed, and for die-hards who swallowed every word she sang, they confused direction with priorities. And as much as I stand by any artist who seeks to try new things, I admit to being apprehensive about Marshall’s dive into Southern soul. To me, that whole Memphis, Soul-Veteran Backing Band cred thing sounded dangerously close to easy listening, Top 40 Radio, and Cat Power didn’t deserve that kind of treatment in my eyes.
Chan disagrees, I think. Are her neurotic, depressed days long behind her? Is she surrounded by yes-men and label execs who encourage her every whim? Worse, is she reading her own press? Although I’m happy to hear her boozing, manic days are behind her, I’d have to nod for all of the above. After all, she’s either believing her own hype or simply treading water between projects, and I truly hope it’s the latter. The Covers Record was tremendous in presenting a volatile artist baring her own soul through the classics of others, and while many fans looked forward to this sequel, it’s a different persona at the mic.
Luckily, Marshall’s voice is as sensuous as ever, blending beautifully with her Dirty Delta Band and revisiting ‘Metal Heart’ with an assuredness that almost unhinges the angst of the original. Still, the strength of Jukebox lies in how an album written by eleven different songwriters can sound so singular in vision and performance. As with the first covers record, Marshall makes most of these her own: ‘Ramblin’ (Wo)man’ finds her right at home, dug deeply into the whiskey-soaked blues, while ‘Silver Stallion’ could be an original if we didn’t know any better.
Then she goes and buys into herself, choosing arrangements (‘Aretha, Sing One For Me’) that hit the Adult Contemporary Bulls-eye. We all know Chan could’ve turned this Motown-flavoured anthem into an introverted meditation had she wanted to, but she wanted to play crooner. And luckily, it’s short (just like unnecessary opener ‘New York’), but the fact that this was deemed inclusion-worthy makes me think Cat Power is reaching for an audience that never heard ‘Hate’ or ‘Nude As the News’. In other instances, the album drags, courtesy of mid-tempo, full-band arrangements that sometimes sound like one-offs (Dylan’s ‘I Believe In You’) and in one predictable case, covering Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Chan proves incapable of doing that timeless song any justice.
I kinda hate myself writing this review, actually. I want to approve her new stream-lined sound without question and call it the maturing of an artist. After all, I would otherwise be asking her to remain miserable and isolated; like those who hoped Bright Eyes would be Peter Pan. These artists grow and find their strengths, but as my last witness, I call upon ‘Song To Bobby’, the only new Cat Power original on Jukebox, to stand and be recognized as the obvious stand-out on this disc. Its sentimentality and arrangement is more memorable than any rendition of Joni, Bob, or Hank (and I’m not one of those die-hards I earlier referred to). It’s simply the best song on this record, even if I’d never heard any incarnation of the covers featured here.
As we cross the skyway toward our hometown, my girlfriend asks me what I think of it, and without considering my words, I state: “it would be a good drinking record if I was drinking by myself.” Sounds about right. Her voice and the blues belong together, and the musicians she’s compiled to accompany her are fit for the job (good ol’ Jim White), but I’m not sure I would listen to this stone-sober yet. If The Greatest took one week to settle in, give Jukebox three – just don’t give up on it.