Firstly let me say I love Cat Power, I always have and I still do. From the first time I saw her open for the Palace Brothers on the Viva Last Blues tour I have been smitten. I personally know a thing or two about anxiety disorders. I know they are very real and can be crippling especially if one’s job is to perform in public. What I have to say is said from a place of love.
This album is vexing. There is nothing wrong with it that one can point to; in fact most tracks are quite good, but there is a nagging feeling of it being calculated and contrived, a result of market research not artistic intent. From the Covers Record we know that Chan is amazingly talented at reinterpretations of others’ songs. This is not strictly a covers record because there are at least two Chan-penned tunes, the strongest of the disc.
The problematic song choice starts with the cover of New York, New York made famous by Frank Sinatra (written by Fred Ebb/John Kander). Maybe it’s me being from Philly and having a chip on my shoulder towards NYC, or maybe after 9/11 the G.O.P. has made the use of any song glorifying the city suspect. Maybe Chan is trying to take the city back from the SUV driving, Starbucks going, FDNY t-shirt wearing assholes. If that is the case then it is cool. There was nothing more disturbing than the crass commercialization of that tragedy by the G.O.P. and their pals in multi-national corporations.
The second track without the baggage is a joy to hear. It is a smoldering bluesy affair. It is a cover of Ramblin’ (Wo)man by Hank Williams. The guitar reverb-ed wails and organ and laid-back drum kit proves the quality of the Dirty Blues Band, the back-up band for this disc. On this song it fades out mid-verse, like it does on other songs, which on first listen was quite off-putting. This is the type of song you want to soak in, and let it percolate. Maybe she was trying to leave one wanting more, which she always does for me.
The high point of the disc I think is the blistering reworking of her own classic “Metal Heart.” The song starts with simple piano with Chan’s slightly husky voice before the drums and guitars come in. When she inserts a verse from “Amazing Grace” the song explodes like a rocket ship hurtling towards the stratosphere. Chan almost screams, “Metal Heart, you are not worth a thing.” What makes this song so successful is that it is not a genre exercise.
Another successful song from the disc is “Silver Stallion”, originally performed by the Highway Men. She changes things up by reversing the gender roles of the original. It alters the feeling and meaning of the song to have female singing words, written by a man. It is still touching nonetheless.
The one song I do not care for on this disc is “Aretha, Sing One For Me” (originally performed by George Jackson). It might just be because I can not stand Aretha Franklin or this particular brand of the blues. It just feels like a little too White Girl Blues. Now her cover of James Brown’s “Lost Someone” has genuine soul vs. someone just doing a genre calisthenics.
She does a raucous cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” This song is not some crass genre flirtation for the benefit of over-privileged vaguely racist Starbucks customer base [Starbucks made her change the packaging of “The Greatest” because of Starbucks’ racist concerns that her shiny pink cover with boxing gloves were “Too Urban” (code word for black) for Starbucks’ core audience].
One can tell she truly loves this Bobby Dylan song. If there were any doubts, the next song is “Song to Bobby” -- a downright sweet song about her crush on Bobby Dylan. It might be her answer to Bob thinking about Alicia Keyes. Once again when she uses her own words her songs are all that more powerful. The song fades out just as she was about to tell Bobby something… Another powerful cover is “Don’t Explain,” originally sung by Billie Holiday (written by Arthur Herzog, Jr. & Billie Holiday). Chan’s take on the song sounds surprisingly fresh and undated.
It may be my own bias against Janis Joplin, but Chan’s cover of “Woman Left Lonely” is a little bit too much of a straight-ahead cover for my taste. It has the slight distaste of market research in the form of song selection. ”Blue” manages to get past my great dislike of Joni Mitchell songs. I think it is the jazzy piano and low wailing organ that made it sound more like a spiritual than that from a pen of a folkie.
I was going to write about the disgusting article in the Magnet Magazine last year that treated Chan more as a fashion model/starlet than an extraordinarily talented musician. I was going to write about my disappointment that Chan would lend her beautiful voice to the vile, evil and corrupt Diamond Cartel. But that just seems mean-spirited. I am glad that she is healthy and performing again. I cannot wait for her to write some of her own material because that is what truly sparkled on this disc.
(Matador) (Dan Cohoon)