Liner Notes: Cat Power Exemplifies Tortured Artist

Chan Marshall, known by her stage name Cat Power, may exemplify the notion of a tortured artist.

She broke into success and wider recognition with her fourth album, 1998’s “Moon Pix” (which was conceived in the one stormy night after a terrifying hallucinatory nightmare) but that wasn’t necessarily what the shy singer wanted. According to the biography, “Cat Power: A Good Woman” by Elizabeth Goodman, Cat Power was crumpling under the perceived expectations for “Moon Pix’s” follow-up, and the pressure made it difficult for her to live what she classified as a “normal life.” During this period, she played a slew of shows where she played only cover songs, projecting the 1928 silent film “The Passion of Joan Arc” behind her onstage to direct attention away from herself.

She began to feel more comfortable performing other people’s songs than her own. Consequently, her next release would be comprised entirely of covers (save for one revamped version of an original song), appropriately and simply titled, “The Covers Record.”

“Now that people were paying attention, and devouring her back catalog, her next move was both somewhat baffling and totally fitting for an artist who’s never taken the easy way out,” said Diffuser.fm.

Cat Power is one of the most formidable musicians today. She is masterful at every level of the process. Her original material is fabulous, but still, “The Covers Records” has become one of her most popular and acclaimed releases (even though it was a disappointment to her label Matador, which expected more original material). This isn’t the mark of laziness but quite the opposite. It’s the mark of Cat Power’s true genius as a performer to make each one of the songs on the record distinctly her own. As Pitchfork said, “This, of course, is not about reason, it’s about a strange force called Cat Power.”

The selections on “The Cover Record” span a wide range and are vastly eclectic; Cat Power covers The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Moby Grape, Smog, Phillip Phillips and more in one album. But it is not, as Diffuser said, a “karaoke album.” Rather, “she spins the dozen tracks to her own melancholy worldview,” using only her voice, her guitar, a piano and sometimes an autoharp.

What makes a good cover song? NPR answered this question in their column, “The Good Listener” by sayimg, “Good cover songs are about necessity — something about the source material that needed to be revisited, revised, redone or otherwise rescued from the original production.” Charing Ball answered the question for Madame Noir and said, “I always felt that what made a good song was a singer’s ability to make you believe the words that they sing. A good cover should maintain that same level of emotional credibility.” Cat Power does both of these things in “The Covers Record,” completely, and exquisitely. Every song sounds like her own work, her own words, and completely new.

Take her cover of the Stone’s “Satisfaction” for example; one of the most well noted tracks on the album. It’s a work so iconic to the Rolling Stone that it is a tough, if not impossible act to follow, or rather, cover. But Cat Power cracks it wide open. As Diffuser notes, she takes a “sexual-frustration classic” and “turns [it] into a mournful acoustic plea for some sort of life connection. Many artists have covered the Stones staple over the years – from Devo’s computer-age short circuit to Britney Spears’ brain-dead club anthem – but no one had ever thought to strip it to its bare essentials.” Or as Pitchfork said, “There’s no trace of Mick– or of the renowned chorus– in this version of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ Marshall has put a blue cover over a red song.” She finds another meaning to a classic work, or finds a space to inject her own, without leaving a trail.

Other highlights on the album include a joyous, yet somehow simultaneously heart-wrenching, cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason,” (it “might actually make you weep until Marshall comes back around to lick your wounds, all in under two minutes,” said Pitchfork), Moby Grape’s “Naked if I Want To,” and a gloriously delicate “Sea of Love” (yes, popularized by its use in “Juno”).

“The Covers Record” is an audiophile’s dream; it is a love letter to excellent artistry through the ages. It shows the versatility and the vivacity of these songs that can take on life on even without their makers. This makes them all the more timeless, as well as showcases Cat Power as a master magician of it all. As Spin said, “Is it essential? Absolutely. With only a guitar or piano, and a voice that is developing into one of the most expressive in rock, Marshall crafts deeply textured explorations of heartache, terror, longing, dismay, and emotions I’m pretty sure I’ve not found yet…. Rock will see few finer releases this year.”

In 2006, Cat Power released another covers record called “Jukebox.” This time, she employed a full band and adapted a boldness that was absent in the subtlety of “The Covers Record.” It’s an excellent record (and I urge you to drop everything you’re doing to listen to the cover of the Highwaymen’s “Silver Stallion” on the album), but “The Covers Record” still holds its own for being so sparse, for Cat Power’s ability to do so much – to transform, to recreate, to transcend – with so little.

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