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Cat Power - Covers review: Her finest set of interpretations yet

Taking inspiration from Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey and beyond, Chan Marshall pushes the songs of others into her own world

Mario Sorrenti
By
14 January 2022
D

oing a cover version is often the easy option – a shortcut to audience approval for a new band, a tribute that requires less effort than writing something new, or a hastily rehearsed novelty for Radio 1’s Live Lounge segment. In contrast Chan Marshall, the Miami-based singer-songwriter who trades as Cat Power, has spent her long career putting more effort into them than most. This is her third covers album, after The Covers Record in 2000 and Jukebox in 2008. There’s also a covers EP, Dark End of the Street, while the strongest moment on her last album of mostly original songs, Wanderer, was a spooky reworking of the Rihanna hit Stay.

She tends to push the songs into her world rather than meeting them where they sit, which means languid, multi-layered vocals, loosely arranged organic instrumentation, and a casual way with phrasing and melody that can make the source close to unrecognisable. It’s hard to hear Liza Minnelli or Frank Sinatra anywhere in her Jukebox version of New York, New York, for example. Her distinctive style also allows wildly disparate songs to become comfortable neighbours. This collection opens with Frank Ocean’s tortured ballad Bad Religion, from 2012, its churchy organ replaced by steady piano chords and a textured electric guitar line, while it finishes with I’ll Be Seeing You, a torch song made famous by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby in the 1940s.

The only song that feels underthought is These Days, where the plucked guitar line is slower but much the same as on Nico’s famous version. Elsewhere she ditches the maudlin piano of Lana Del Rey’s White Mustang in favour of shimmering keyboards and a howling guitar, finds a groovier bassline than Iggy Pop’s when she reimagines his 1979 song The Endless Sea, and takes The Pogues’ A Pair Of Brown Eyes to another level of beauty when she strips it back to just a wispy mellotron and the tale of lost love in the lyrics.

The songs are picked for their personal significance rather than wider familiarity, a strategy that extends to covering herself. Unhate is a new chapter to her 2006 recording Hate, on which the line “I hate myself and want to die” becomes “I hated myself…”. It shows that she’s in a good place – a strong position from which to deliver her finest set of interpretations yet.

(Domino)