Today is the birthday of Charlyn Marie “Chan” Marshall – best-known by her stage name “Cat Power.” And, to celebrate, I’m excited to write about her latest album.
The first Cat Power song I ever listened to was Chan’s cover of The Velvet Underground’s song “I Found a Reason.” This song plays in the most intimate scene in V for Vendetta, a movie that, at 14, I thought had changed the entire world. I was a freshman in high school in 2006, and Pandora was the streaming service du jour. I made an “I Found a Reason” station, and I listened obsessively, savoring the rare times when the song would play. It took me out of the halls of my high school, and my small, dry hometown, where I fit in well enough but would never fall in love. It dropped me into a tiny romantic space, made sweeter by the fact that it only lasted two minutes.
When I listened to the Velvet Underground’s original, I didn’t feel that. I missed the stripped-down piano notes that fall like teardrops. I missed Cat Powers’ yearning, resigned voice. Compared to the things Cat Power’s version made me feel, the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” didn’t make me feel anything at all.
Covers is Cat Power’s third compilation of covers – after 2008’s Jukebox and 2000’s The Covers Record. The songs that Cat Power covers this time around are connected in a playlist of personal narrative. In an interview for Apple Music, Chan explains what each of the songs on her newest album means to her. Some strike her because of their lyrics, some because of the memories she associates with them. A playlist of these songs wouldn’t necessarily “flow.” It wouldn’t “set a mood.” It might work great for a road trip, a long one, where you need some variety to keep your eyes from shutting on a long, straight highway across the country. But it wouldn’t drop you into a singular world and keep you there for forty-three minutes.
But Covers – compiled as an album – does keep you there. Cat Power’s melancholy vocals and the simplicity of the music that I appreciated so much in “I Found a Reason” create a space in my brain, and, long after the album ends, I can’t get out of it. The tracks are echoey. They move fluidly between chorus and verse, skip and reword lines, then add whole new ones. They sound like the dream of music I hear when a song gets stuck in my head. Each song on the album offers something new, a new progression or rhythm, a new vocal technique, a new feeling. But together they form a coherent record that I will keep near the top of my collection.
I struggle, without much technical music knowledge, to describe what makes the space feel so coherent and real to me. But perhaps this is an acceptable way to review Covers. “The reason I don’t play a standard cover, with the notes and chords,” Chan tells Apple Music, “is because I don’t fucking know what the chords are. I never know what I’m doing.”
From the very first track, Chan tears the original versions down to their foundations in order to build her world on top of them. Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” morphs from an organ-and-strings-driven anthem into a desperate howl. Her improvisational attitude and bluesy vocals transform Frank’s “prayer” to something that sounds almost like “freedom.” The rhythmic chords chug through the song like an unstoppable, steady momentum. This sets the stage for the album. Throughout, piano and guitar rhythms operate like a strong heartbeat, pumping just the right amount of blood into the music.
In another pop cover, Lana Del Rey’s “White Mustang,” becomes a country-blues track. The first chords are ominous, turning the self-awarely shallow track, a whiney elegy for summer love, into a mournful but determined departure from the fantasy. (To be clear, I love Lana’s version too; sometimes you need to wallow as Lana does, and sometimes, like Cat Power, you need to leave.)
This album is often cinematic, evocative of scenes and settings that are entirely different from the originals. Whereas The Pogues, in “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” shout the story, Chan coos. Her voice layers over itself, delicately choral. The commingling tales of heartbreak and war are transported to a fairy circle. Iggy Pop’s “The Endless Sea” is already a bass-y track with dark bar vibes. Cat Power replaces its stinging synths with guitar chords that scream weakly at the unrelenting bass. The track loses its article, becoming “Endless Sea,” and its quasi-futuristic feeling. I can imagine it, along with her cover of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “I Had a Dream Joe,” on the jukebox in a time-out-of-time bar operated by David Lynch. These darker songs recall her earliest albums, Myra Lee and What Would the Community Think, albums first played in grungy bars in the early ‘90s.
As Philip Sherburne points out for Pitchfork, Cat Power’s cover of Nico’s version of “These Days” is surprisingly faithful. The gentle, folky guitar has less twang, more fluidity than the original. But Cat Power’s minor-keyed vocal tendencies are a perfect fit for the solemn, recognizable lyrics.
The final two tracks are heavy with nostalgia. “Here Comes a Regular,” wistfully recalls the dingy glow of a drinking community. And “I’ll Be Seeing You,” which she performed for the widow of a dear friend, is rife with pauses perfect for a catching breath or a sob. It’s backed not just by improvisational, mournful piano, but an extra layer of vocals, humming “mmm-ba-mm-ba,” as well. I’ve listened to the album at least ten times since it was released on Friday, January 14. This is the song that I can’t get out of my head.
On the cover of Covers: a saturated blue denim button-up shirt, buttoned at the collar and at the second button. The other two buttons in the image are undone. In the breast pocket, an American passport, its recognizable blue almost black against the brighter denim. Next to it, a yellow pencil, bright like a beacon. We’re going on a journey, the cover of Cat Power’s latest album tells us. We should layer up, and prepare to take note.
From Wikipedia: Charlyn Marie “Chan” Marshall is better known by her stage name Cat Power. She is an American singer-songwriter, musician, occasional actress, and model. “Cat Power” was originally the name of Marshall’s first band, but has become her stage name as a solo artist.
To visit Cat Power’s website, click here.
To read Phillip Sherburne’s Pitchfork review, click here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Chan Marshall aka “Cat Power.”
Bottom Photo: Album cover for Covers.
Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Shore Fire Media.