CD Review of Jukebox by Cat Power
Recommended if you like
Feist, Lou Barlow, PJ Harvey
Label
Matador
Cat Power: Jukebox

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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W
hen she announced her arrival with 1995’s Dear Sir, Cat Power seemed a pretty unlikely candidate for It Girl status – in that or any other decade. Her debut was politely described by the All Music Guide’s Heather Phares as “demanding but rewarding,” which is a nice way of saying that as often as not, the woman her parents named Chan Marshall seemed more interested in making noise than making music. A funny thing happened on the way to critically heralded obscurity, though – Marshall, slowly but surely, learned how to write songs. Good songs, even. Where she once struggled to bridge the gap between bloody-knuckled punk and country soul, she started edging toward the middle, letting her smoky voice lead the way. Safer? Less interesting? Perhaps. More enjoyable? Almost definitely.

2006’s The Greatest broke Cat Power through to the mainstream, sparking a shower of critical raves and reaching the Billboard Top 40. It marked a turning point in Marshall’s performances, too, both in the studio and onstage; the artist who was once known for breaking off concerts mid-song, or performing in a ball on the floor, overcame her stage fright and started delivering more polished sets. Insofar as any artist can be said to have “made it” during the era of spiraling music sales, Cat Power seems to have made it.

It seems like a strange time for a covers album, in other words – but Marshall has a long history of covering other people’s songs; in fact, Jukebox is a sequel to 2000’s aptly named The Covers Record. Given that The Greatest was her first entirely self-penned set, it’s hard not to see Jukebox as an unexpected step back; on the other hand, her interpretive gifts have always been at least as strong as her songwriting, so she’s guilty of nothing more than playing to her strengths here.

Those strengths, incidentally, include taking songs she didn’t write – some of them extremely well-known – and turning them inside out, usually by slowing the tempo way down, dropping in some sad piano, and winding a gauzy curtain of reverb around the whole thing. This is essentially Jukebox’s sonic palette in a nutshell – a sort of 21st century, lo-fi update on the soft-focus Memphis soul of Dusty Springfield.

This approach shouldn’t always work – Marshall covers Sinatra’s “New York” and James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” for heaven’s sake – but it does; as a piece of mildly evocative mood music, Jukebox succeeds mightily.

On every other level, though, the album is sort of a wash. Marshall turns the songs inside out, but she doesn’t really sound like she’s living in them; her vocals maintain an appealing level of melancholy, but more than anything, she just sounds sort of bored. Jukebox won’t grate on you after repeated listening, but it won’t grow on you, either – it just wafts through the room and dissipates, leaving nothing behind. These aren’t bad performances, not at all – it’s easy to see why Spooner Oldham decided to grace the proceedings with his keyboards – but they aren’t essential, either, possibly not even for Cat Power fans. Marshall says she’s already written the follow-up to The Greatest; we’ll have to wait until whenever it comes out to see exactly where her muse is headed.

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