Saturday, January 12, 2008

A Man Come on the Radio

Chan Marshall’s last two records feature muscular, expressive R&B backing bands that nonetheless perform few favors for her vocals. Marshall’s own instrument is haunted and evocative for sure, but when she’s forced to project it to match the swell of the musicians behind her, that voice often dissipates into an indistinct smear. With at least three-fourths of artists I prefer loudness and clatter to quietude, but Cat Power’s a quintessential exception, my two favorite moments of hers being "Metal Heart" from Moon Pix (her best record) and the stunningly reimagined reading she gave the Stones’ "Satisfaction" (teasingly, bracingly withholding the trademark refrain).

Reckoning those two songs choice cuts should make Jukebox my idea of heaven, considering it’s almost wholly a covers record plus Cat reworks "Metal Heart," in essence covering herself. Unfortunately, Chan has to contend with a band for this version of the track, a band that raises a tautly modest clamor and consequently renders Marshall’s closest approximation of "belting" as something bland and colorless.

Chan doesn’t have the command to wrest Dylan’s "I Believe in You" from her funk-dealing players, but thankfully enough of Jukebox is spare and intimate that it’s still a considerable improvement on 2006's flaccid The Greatest. Most surprisingly, given her struggles rendering Dylan coupled with her otherwise suspiciously outsized reputation as an interpreter (obviously three-original-albums-in-eight-years Chan is susceptible to doubts as to just how much she has to say), the lone newbie, a Dylan tribute called "Song to Bobby," is all kinds of fascinating, its ruminative chords a perfect complement to Chan’s stream-of-consciousness musings. I have a feeling the song’s subject would approve of the way Marshall moves from using hazy poetics to describe the experience of listening to Dylan ("I was 15, 16 maybe," "this wind came blowing in") to using concrete details to describe actually meeting Dylan ("New York office" "backstage pass," "Paris, France"). Navigating the space between myth and man makes it a natural companion to I’m Not There as well as Dylan’s Chronicles.

It’s better than most of her covers because, rather than putting herself and her own persona into a song, she’s extracting new meanings and resonances from something that was already there (see also: "Satisfaction").

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