At this stage of her career, Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, is as arguably well known for her cover versions as her own songs. Covers is her third dedicated album thereto (we’ve looked at the first two before), with a scattering more across the rest of her other output. When other artists reach their third such collection, whispers carry that this may be a sign of fading inspiration. If Marshall’s covers were just a stack of facsimile copies, cut’n’pasted from the usual culprits, possibly that worry could carry some weight for her as well. But Marshall has long since stopped having to defend her love of remorphing and remolding the songs of others, oft citing that being her approach, anyway and as well, to her own songs. It is only recordings that are ever frozen in time and space, and most performers with any lasting legacy are constantly rewriting and revising, a view we heartily here endorse. And, as if to underline that, one of the “covers” here is of one of her old songs, “Hate,” here newly named as “Unhate.”
So what do we get here? Twelve songs, from this century to just over halfway through the last, from artists some celebrated and some surprising, taking no heed of genre or expectation in the songs chosen. So Frank Ocean sits alongside Nick Cave, Shane McGowan with Lana del Rey, with Billie Holiday and Kitty Wells (Kitty Wells, fer chrissakes!) for good measure. Plus, as if deliberately to contradict my earlier comment, there is even a cover of Jackson Browne’s surely by now overly frequently presented “These Days.”
Sometimes the joy in a record like this is discovering an artist otherwise untapped, styles of music more normally overlooked. Which is how Covers opens, my bad being to admit no knowledge of the work of Frank Ocean beyond his name. “Bad Religion” is, I gather, one of his biggies. I am immediately taken to this version, the multitracked vocal having echoes of, of all people, Bon Iver, and, on reference, certainly more mystique than the somewhat overwrought performance of the original. Strangely, the r’n’b licks I would have expected to lie within have slipped all out into the revised “Unhate,” with an echo of Stevie Wonder by way of Coolio about the arrangement, that side foots my memory of the earlier iteration, with its clipped guitar. It works.
I am not sure how well known are Dead Man’s Bones, the, to put it unkindly, vanity project of Ryan Gosling. “Pa Pa Power” is one of theirs, lightweight already, so actually tempered with a little more gravitas, but sadly a bit skipworthy. Marshall’s voice remains oddly androgynous. Thankfully, Lana Del Rey’s “Mustang” carries more substance, with a way more muscular setting transforming the more languid arrangement of her friend and sometime collaborator. Which leads into the much heralded and pre-released “Pair of Brown Eyes.” Few have ever successfully managed to cover the Pogues, this perhaps being one you might think beyond the worth and wealth of effort required. But, against expectation, Marshall cracks it, with a simple arrangement of multi-tracked harmonies and a mellotron. Less really is more, and it gives Covers a reassuring lift.
If a thought arises now, it is how different is Marshall’s delivery from old, her voice now seeming a cleaner and more defined instrument. Which may not be all good, so for Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind” it is pleasingly and more reassuringly muddy and takes a moment, or even longer, to recognize. This trademark blue-collar ballad, all midtempo driving piano in the original, is here rendered in a plethora of minor keys, stripped back to the haze and whimsy of her other work. It’s a grower, sticking fast when the imprint holds. That atmosphere is kept up into the spooky take on Iggy Pop deep cut “Endless Sea.” Like many of the cuts from her “Memphis” album, The Greatest, this is driven by the rhythm section, who provide a slowly loping beat over which she intones. Little more than a tone poem, it is another highlight. And nothing at all like the original.
So to “These Days,” and even she can’t escape the instant flicker of recognition offered by just the first few bars as it opens, not least as, atypically, the guitar line is preserved from, actually, most of the myriad versions existing. On reflection, I think it probably was the Nico version that was the template, and, bar substituting the awkward angularity of that delivery with her far woozier croon, it is the comparison with that that sits best in the ear, making it work as possibly her most conventional cover version yet. However, should that sound sacrilegious to expectation and image, her stripped-back “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” will surprise more. Yes, it is clearly both country and western, with some gloriously hokey steel, but the whole rendition comes over like a stoned Nancy Sinatra, walking bass and all, an idea I find I like. A truly unexpected song and a strangely conventional, if unexpected, iteration.
Dropping the “Joe” from 1992 Nick Cave’s gothic bluster “I Had A Dream (Joe),” despite her old and usually trusted technique of dispensing with much of the lyric, along with the extra verbiage, so the urgency of the song is lost and it feels a bit of a filler, carried more by the recurring piano motif than the lyrical charge it warrants. Thankfully, a gloriously wobbly version of the Replacements’ “Here Comes A Regular,” the longest track here, more than makes up for this, the words of the song harking back her thirstier pre-sobriety days, treated voice and piano just the setting required for this wistful song of… is it longing, or regret? Beautiful. Which leads to the closing choice, the oldest song here, from 1938, Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Leaving behind the piano that marks most of this record, Marshall sings sotto voce, to, initially, only a muted picked guitar, before tinkles of piano join, the mood redolent of late night, after hours, the club closed down, a bittersweet finale to end proceedings with the right sense of detachment, that being where she seems best to fit and operate.
“When I do covers, I feel such a responsibility to the artists I love—some I’ve never met, some I have,” Marshall says, and this feels about right. If some of Covers‘ covers fall a little off center, never can it be said she wasn’t trying to eke out some slight semblance of nuance previously unheard. It will certainly be enough to keep her engaging brand of quirk ongoing.
Covers track listing:
1. Bad Religion (Frank Ocean cover)
3. Pa Pa Power (Dead Man’s Bones cover)
4. A Pair Of Brown Eyes (The Pogues cover)
5. Against the Wind (Bob Seger cover)
6. Endless Sea (Iggy Pop cover)
7. These Days (Jackson Browne cover)
8. It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels (Kitty Wells cover)
9. I Had A Dream (Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds cover)
10. Here Comes A Regular (The Replacements cover)
11. I’ll Be Seeing You (Billie Holiday cover)