Covers by Cat Power

Release date: January 14, 2022
Label: Domino

If you’re rolling into 2022 with a weary shrug only to look up and find you’re staring down the barrel of everything getting even more hopeless, well, you’re not alone. It’s been a bleak start. January is always grey and grim but most new years bring a little bump of hope and self deception. This year? Nothing. What could be better than a new album of Cat Power Covers to wrap yourself in and ease the chill of the world? A few songs you know, a few you don’t and the solace of Chan Marshall’s beautiful voice.

Chan has a fluid and surprisingly uncommon relationship to songs and their singing. One less tied to their younger selves, fixed in recordings, more attuned to the lives they lead out in the world, attaching themselves to people, places and memories as they pass through. She digs out the emotional resonance, changing lyrics, even dumping chunks of them, often writing entirely new arrangements. The opening track highlights this ability to twist and bend songs to her own ends in the most respectful of ways and provided the impetus for this latest collection. While touring her last album Wanderer Chan found that performing one of its songs ‘In Your Face’, made her angry and unhappy so she started to sing the words of Frank Ocean’s ‘Bad Religion’ over it instead.

A similar adjustment sees her rework her own ‘Hate’ (from 2006’s The Greatest) as ‘Unhate’ softening its red raw edges and nudging it into the past tense without erasing the harsh truth of its despair. There’s a ‘thank-you’ Lana Del Rey tune and a playful Detroit double whammy of Bob Seger and Iggy Pop numbers but the songs on Covers are not picked for any framing notion of their compatibility, universality or even individual greatness so much as personal significance. She sings ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ as if backed by a late night beatnik trio, skirting the old school music biz format of themed albums called things like Cat Sings Country or Jazz Power! and subtly underscoring the distance between the commercial functionality of that model, or even streaming algorithms, and her own wayward muse.

 

Her take on The Pogues’ ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ swaps the maudlin sway of the barroom for the unquiet ghosts of memory, taking the album’s subtle instrumentation to its most minimal and dreamlike. By contrast ‘These Days’ is played pretty straight against Nico’s original. As is often the way she slows it by just a beat or two and there are none of the strings Nico disdained, the contrast coming really from their voices. The warmth and sad eyed comfort in Chan’s holding the other end of the rope from Nico’s brittle froideur. It’s a song that’s seen a lot of versions and Nico’s is one that’s come around often in the last few years with an ever growing weight. So I don’t say this lightly, but I think it’s absolutely its equal. Also in the ‘songs that could have been written for Chan to sing’ category she turns in a gorgeous reading of The Replacements’ shattered drunkard’s lament ‘Here Comes A Regular’, a tune she used to play on the jukebox and a lonely cousin to her own glorious ‘Lived In Bars’.

Perhaps the most obscure choice is also one of the album’s peaks. A duo of Zach Shields and Ryan Gosling (yes, that one) Dead Man’s Bones made a charming and lo-fi album with a kid’s choir a decade or so ago. Hallowe’en themed and a bit of a whimsical oddity it has some pretty great songs tucked away amid the playfulness. The lyric of ‘Pa Pa Power’ is opaque but contains the marvellous line “please make me better” as unassuming a summary of what links these songs as you could wish for. Maybe even for why we love to hear this woman sing. There is pain in these songs but healing in her voice. Human frailty and beauty. Magic and sorrow and loss. If most of Covers feels like Chan putting a comforting arm around our shoulders, ‘Pa Pa Power’ is more energised, a turn to face the future. She throws in a new line “what are we gonna do as it’s breaking down?” acknowledging a community of the lost and broken, calling them to face down the gathering darkness together. Consolation and a tiny glimmer of hope.

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