Cover Classics takes a look at great covers albums of the past, their genesis and their legacies.
Black Friday may have gone, but here’s a twofer bargain.
Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, has produced two near-full album cover classics in her career (so far), which doesn’t even begin to fully address her never-more-quirky approach to the songs of others. Not that she is lost for any words of her own! She’s got a back catalogue stretching across many styles and many genres, from raw scratchy indie through slinky southern soul, a touch of electronica and back again, yet always unmistakably herself. Her career has seen her seemingly beset by internal demons; many had written her off until her triumphant return this fall with Wanderer, containing ten of her own songs, and one contender for our Cover Songs of the Year post.
But it is back to 2000 we first go, to The Covers Record. Allegedly a disappointment to her record company, who had appreciated this was an artiste worth their investment, but even with lackluster promotion it became a slow burning triumph. Praise and plaudits accumulated over the years, not least as box set dramas required ever more diverse musical accompaniments.
Sparse, very sparse, The Covers Record is Marshall alone, accompanying herself on fairly rudimentary guitar or piano. The one other musician present is fellow maverick Matt Sweeney, whose fluid guitar on the old traditional “Salty Dog” comes as some surprise. The choice of songs is spread far and wide, from Dylan, the Stones, and the Velvet Underground, to ’50s ballads and campfire blues hollers. There are also two songs by oddball outsider folkie Michael Hurley, and one by Marshall herself – kindred spirits surely, if only by association.
Yet it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between cover and original, so does she subsume any memory of the source in her performances, obliviating both the need for otherwise presumed integral melodies and lyrics as she goes. Nowhere is this better stated than with possibly the best known cut, the album-opening deconstruction of Jagger/Richards “Satisfaction.” She somehow dispenses with the need for That Chorus, giving instead an eerie lament around only the verses. Impressively bleak, I adore it. Never has smoking (don’t do it, kids) sounded so cool.
“Sea of Love” is a personal favorite, and would surely have featured in the Pacino/Barkin film of the same name, had it been made by David Lynch rather than Harold Becker. For me, though, the other standout on The Covers Record is “Wild is the Wind.” Johnny Mathis was the initial purveyor of this torch song, now more associated with David Bowie and Nina Simone. In Marshall’s hands, it becomes an almost Brechtian sea shanty. Feel the wildness of this wind, more the harsh and unforgiving relentlessness of the Tundra than the random havoc of this week’s hurricane.
The Covers Record Tracklisting:
1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (The Rolling Stones cover)
2. Kingsport Town (Trad/Bob Dylan cover)
3. Troubled Waters (Mae West with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra cover)
4. Naked, If I Want To (Moby Grape cover)
5. Sweedeedee (Michael Hurley cover)
6. In This Hole (Cat Power original)
7. I Found a Reason (The Velvet Underground cover)
8. Wild Is the Wind (Johnny Mathis cover)
9. Red Apples (Smog cover)
10. Paths of Victory (Bob Dylan cover)
11. Salty Dog (Trad/Papa Charlie Jackson cover)
12. Sea of Love (Phil Phillips cover)
Roll forward to 2008. Marshall has had a prolonged post-Covers Record hiatus, ahead of further records of original material, the 2nd of which was The Greatest, where she dispenses with rough and ready, enrolling Al Green’s house band and production team to give a sheen and polish to her material, in so doing coming up a treat. Perhaps again wary of the mounting acclaim around an earlier record, Marshall again then returned to cover territory. But this time, rather than flying solo, she surrounded herself with such class as Teenie Hodges (Al Green’s guitarist and right hand man, back again from The Greatest), Jim White (drummer of The Dirty Three), percussionist Larry McDonald from Toots and the Maytals, and Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham on piano.
The choice of songs was no less eclectic. This time around, Marshall included two of her own compositions. The rest came from such as Hank Williams, Billie Holiday and James Brown, the more modern world represented by another Dylan and by Joni Mitchell. A special limited edition contained a further five bonus tracks, and the Dark End of the Street EP released shortly thereafter, with the same band and presumably from the same sessions, supplied yet another six. It is this last of these that I find the most beguiling, with covers of classic songs from the likes of Otis Redding and Dan Penn, as well as Sandy Denny’s evergreen “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” There’s also a baffling folk-rock “Fortunate Son,”, redolent somehow of “Sympathy For the Devil.” It really shouldn’t work. Yet it does.
The performances are altogether swishier than The Covers Record, yet, with Marshall’s vocal style remaining unchanged, there is almost a cumulative vulnerability at work here. The backing, however adept, contrasts so strongly with the bereft persona of the singer. Take this example, a take on the by-now cliche of musical theatre’s “New York, New York,” actually showing there is a decent song behind all the usual pizzazz. Stuff the showbiz trumpets – this is funky, with the faltering vocal adding the threat to the promise.
But it is the R&B tracks that most fully celebrate the counter-intuitiveness of the artist with the material, demonstrating that soul is blind to background. Marshall’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” is a song that reeks of smudged makeup and tears, of being alone in a hotel bathroom, contemplating… well, let’s just say “contemplating” and leave it at that.
But it isn’t all smooth, with “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” bridging the two albums. Near unrecognizable, this isn’t the wistful Sandy Denny looking back, something she never really got the chance to do; this is more how the song may have sounded had Denny’s early demise been predicted to her by a fairground gypsy.
1. New York (Liza Minnelli cover)
2. Ramblin’ (Wo)man (Hank Williams cover)
3. Metal Heart (Cat Power original)
4. Silver Stallion (The Highwaymen cover)
5. Aretha, Sing One for Me (George Jackson cover)
6. Lost Someone (James Brown cover)
7. Lord, Help the Poor & Needy (Jessie Mae Hemphill cover)
8. I Believe in You (Bob Dylan cover)
9. Song to Bobby (Cat Power original
10. Don’t Explain (Billie Holiday cover)
11. Woman Left Lonely (Janis Joplin cover)
12. Blue (Joni Mitchell cover)
13. I Feel (Hot Boys cover)
14. Naked, If I Want to (Moby Grape cover)
15. Breathless (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cover)
16. Angelitos Negros (Eartha Kitt cover)
17. She’s Got You (Patsy Cline cover)
Dark End of the Street EP Tracklisting:
1. Dark End of the Street (James Carr cover)
2. Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival Cover)
3. Ye Auld Triangle (Dominic Behan cover)
4. I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now) (Otis Redding cover)
5. Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (Strawbs cover)
6. It Ain’t Fair (Ronnie Miller original)
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