Sometime between suffering panic attacks, fighting off loneliness and creating Charlie Brown’s world of melancholy and tenderness, cartoonist Charles Schulz observed, “Happiness is a sad song.” Sometime between battling depression, enduring a nervous breakdown and modeling for Chanel, Chan Marshall made an album of sad songs that validate Schulz’s words. Listening to Cat Power have her way with the classic folk and blues ballads on Jukebox, her second covers album, is like feeling you’re in the gutter and being strangely grateful for your dismal situation; when you’ve hit rock bottom, at least then you know you’re really feeling things.
When Marshall re-worked tunes by the likes of the Rolling Stones and Velvet Underground for her first covers album eight years ago, a piano and guitar were her only backing, leaving her with little opportunity to waver from a stark, feeble sound. This time around the Dirty Delta Blues band is in tow, opening the doors for Marshall to showcase the dimensions of her voice. Translating the works of Bob Dylan, James Brown, Hank Williams and Joni Mitchell, she at times sounds wounded and defeated, other times defiant and proudly feminine.
One by one she converts the songs into her own. On The Highwaymen’s ‘Silver Stallion’ she abandons Johnny Cash and co.’s steady twang and replaces it with a fragile whisper over quiet guitar. Meanwhile, her rendition of ‘Aretha, Sing One for Me’ sticks closely to George Jackson’s original. Here, her shouts sound revived and sweetened, and for their three-minute duration make you consider joining a gospel choir. Then there’s ‘Song to Bobby’, a new track Marshall wrote as a tribute to Dylan, on which her innocence and vulnerability shine through the natural guttural tones of her vocals.
The album’s opener leaves little doubt of what’s to follow. She begins by taking Frank Sinatra’s finger-snapping ode to the city that never sleeps and boldly shedding the song’s famed “go get ‘em tiger” swagger. Marshall, a Southern transplant to NYC, instead sings ‘New York, New York’ from the perspective of someone whose whippersnapper days are long gone. When it comes time for her to belt out the “If I can make it there/I’ll make it anywhere” line, she sounds defeated by a city that’s constantly wearing on her spirit. Set against a bluesy downtempo that could’ve been lifted from any smoky Vegas lounge, her sultry vocals ring out raw and unhinged. And so while we may be dealing with other artists’ songs, it’s clear we do have a bona fide Cat Power record on our hands.