Cat Power Jukebox

[Matador; 2008]

Styles: classic R&B, soul, country, blues
Others: Dusty Springfield, Sarah Vaughn, Cassandra Wilson

‘90s indie stars just aren’t what they used to be. Stephen Malkmus lives in a castle in Portland, Jeff Mangum lives in self-imposed exile, and Chan Marshall lives inside a whole ‘nother musical model. The Memphis session men of The Greatest were the first sign Marshall was on a new thing, but with Jukebox, Ms. Cat Power has made an album that is explicitly anti-indie. She’s taken another sideways leap into a musical vocabulary that has far more in common with the artists she’s covered, here and on the first Covers Record, than with any of the ‘90s work that made her name, covering genre and musical ethos as much as she covers individual songs.

That’s what bumps Jukebox up that extra half-point or so beyond the solidly, unremarkably enjoyable realm: Marshall has one-upped everyone by crafting an album wholly in the tradition of great R&B, jazz, blues, and soul singers of yore. A talented vocalist recruits a band of veteran journeymen players from her peer group (The Dirty Three’s omnipresent Jim White on drums, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer on guitar), runs down the standards, and tries her best to highlight the songs in this new context. The production plays the same game, giving the effect of hearing a tight, professional live band in an acoustically accurate room. The vibe is more akin to something you’d likely hear under a tent at Jazzfest in New Orleans than from a fragile, stage-shy acoustic deconstructionist.

And even if she doesn’t always hit the mark, the songs are more than enjoyable enough to make the effort worthwhile. This set is still more consistent than the Covers Record (even if it lacks a cut as indelible as her take on “I Found a Reason”), and the style her Dirty Delta Blues band adopts plays well to her quiet, smoky-voiced strengths. Some of the tracks feel a little forced, like “New York, New York,” but her rereading of her own “Metal Heart” is more alive and vital than the original Moon Pix version (and this is one of the best songs off of this reviewer’s favorite Cat Power album). With this track, she’s instigated as radical a transformation upon her own work as upon something like her version of “Satisfaction,” effectively placing her former self in the same presence as the rest of these artists: as a powerful influence, hanging heavy with independent merit and period significance, but an inspiration rather than aspiration.

“I Believe in You” and “Blue” stand out from the other takes here as much as they do from Dylan and Joni Mitchell’s original versions, and “Silver Stallion,” another major highlight, shows she hasn’t forgotten how to make a song matter with nothing more than her voice and a strum. It’s telling that the lone new original “Song for Bobby” is, while a perfectly good song, perhaps the least musically interesting on the album, as Marshall affects her best Bobby D. impression over a Norah Jones arrangement that reduces the band to wallpaper.

The last several years have seen Marshall expanding her musical vocabulary, and with it her appeal. And that is nothing to cry about, as long as you’re not a thirty-something wishing your generation of artists would stay as young as you remember both of yourselves. She’s taking a big risk here and potentially alienating much of her original fanbase, but Jukebox is a big, bold kiss-off to the indie ghetto that’s braver and all the more interesting for the approach she’s chosen.

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