As Cat Power, Chan Marshall has elevated the art of the cover song and how an artist can make someone else’s material their own. Nearly all of her records feature at least one cover, and she’s devoted two LPs to the form, The Covers Record in 2000 and 2008’s Jukebox. Now make that three with this week’s release of Covers.
Few artists would be bold enough to record tracks from disparate acts like Frank Ocean, Nick Cave, Lana Del Rey, Bob Seger, and Billie Holiday for the same album, but that’s part of the appeal. Because as she is wont to do, Marshall takes on a diverse range of material, transforming it to match her moody, unadorned style.
As a singer, Marshall possesses a unique, sneakily dynamic voice and she uses it to great effect on Covers. On “I Had a Dream Joe,” she doesn’t seek to recreate the authoritative fire-and-brimstone timbre of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ original. Instead, Marshall pairs an ominous piano melody with anxious multi-tracked vocals to highlight the song’s feverish tone and religious underpinnings in a different, but equally dynamic, fashion.
Her spin on the Dead Man’s Bones (the musical side project of actor Ryan Gosling) track “Pa Pa Power” packs a rhythmic punch only hinted at in the precocious, synth-drenched original, while the rendition of the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes” is literal, right down to channeling Shane MacGowan’s vocal affectation. She also plays it straight with the Kitty Wells classic “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
The two boldest interpretations on Covers are its opening two tracks. Marshall offers a bold reimagining of Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” replacing sorrow with defiance. The other is a song called “Unhate,” a do-over of her own 2006 track “Hate.” The original is mournful, steeped in self-loathing and personal anguish. “Unhate” maintains the same lyrics, but its approach is different, sung from the perspective of someone who survived those hard times and can now look back on it.
On an album full of bright spots, reinventing her own singular voice and highlighting her own personal and artistic growth may be Marshall’s finest achievement.