Cat Power - The Too-Tortured Artist?

Written by Alan McGee
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Cat Power's 2008  covers album Jukebox carries on the unique tradition that kicked off when the singer deconstructed the Rolling Stones' (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction on her 2000 album The Covers Record. Chan Marshall (her real name) took the essential maleness out of the song. Her voice was a revelation, reminiscent of Nina Simone and informed by Bob Dylan.

Shortly afterwards, someone made me a cd of the John Peel session in which she covered Oasis' Wonderwall and Lyrnrd Skyrnd's Freebird to refreshing and pared-down effect. In folk or jazz it's natural to cover standards. But in rock, doing a cover is tantamount to admitting that you're bereft of creativity. People forget that performers from Scott Walker through to Johnny Cash transformed the whole idea of a cover from filler and cash-in to art.

The weird thing about listening to Marshall's Jukebox is the impression that each song was chosen for its sense of catharsis. The overall mood is as soulful as a scratchy and worn Northern Soul record on a dive-bar jukebox. The careful selection of songs makes it a startlingly personal album that tells you more about Marshall than her own originals do. Even more startling is the reworking of her own song Metal Heart, which has morphed from NYC art-rock to a stunning southern soul number. It's almost as if the classic band she picked up for previous album The Greatest made her into another proposition entirely.

For every song Chan Marshall records, there is a story about her breaking down onstage, performing for Chanel or living in halfway-abandoned ghetto tenements in New York. But she is also her own business manager and, by all accounts, a tough negotiator. She is a paradoxical character - yet what I find most fascinating are her parallels with, and ongoing fascination for, Bob Dylan.

In one interview she explained the lengths she has gone to not only to meet Dylan but also to win the support slot on his tour. Dylan's son appeared backstage and she asked him outright to ask his father. Dylan's son was shocked by the breach in etiquette (you never ask his children about their dad, much less try to wangle the tour support), but her perseverance fits her paradoxical character, from nervous artist to cool and hard manager.

Chan Marshall's hero worship is almost akin to Bob Dylan's obsession with Woody Guthrie. Like Dylan, Marshall travelled to New York to emulate her hero and like Dylan's songs about Woody Guthrie, she's written Song for Bobby, an account of her first meeting with Dylan (as well as covering him on Jukebox and the I'm Not There soundtrack). But unlike her idol, Chan is an open book during interviews, not caring to hide her personal tragedies. One detailed the nervous breakdown and subsequent hospital stay that prevented her from touring The Greatest.

With one of her best recorded efforts somewhat overshadowed by her fame as a tortured artist par excellence, Chan Marshall will hopefully regain her lost momentum. This summer will see her wonderful band accompanying her though the world's festivals. By its end, she will have made the transition from New York night owl to southern soul superstar.

(c) Alan McGee
Read 3140 times Last modified on Monday, 27 April 2015 19:37
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