The sexy hip-sway of a young woman against an old Wurlitzer, Cat Power’s Jukebox finds the once-troubled Chan Marshall still basking in the deep neon glow of Southern soul that so dominated The Greatest (2006). Whereas the focus on that album was the sumptuous Dusty Springfield fever-dream of hazy strings and brassy trumpet fills, her second covers album (the accompaniment to 2000’s The Covers Record) features far fewer overproduction flourishes. Full of simmering restraint, Jukebox sounds lived-in and genuine, less a genre experiment than full fledged statement — it expands the sound of The Greatest by pulling it inward, treating the sensuousness of Stax like one of Marshall’s covers, internalizing it and making it her own.
The primary sound here is that voice: warmer and fuller than ever before. Marshall’s vocals slide through the songs with a husky, seductive lilt, moving around and behind the beat, from the back alleys to the front stage, passing through sheer waves of muted keyboards bound to lulling guitars. The confidence Marshall shows here is staggering considering her stage history of collapsing into the event horizon of her own self-doubt and alcoholism.
Opening with the rhythmic, driving pulse of “New York, New York,” Jukebox begins with a hopeful yearning, the same mood that closed the otherwise harrowing skeletal blues of The Covers Record. Though all the covers here are broken down and reassembled by Marshall and the Dirty Three’s Muscle Shoals flexing, there is no adaptation quite as radical as Covers’ spectral “Satisfaction,” no eviscerations of song structure or Marshall’s soul.
Rather, this is an album of soul music as reaffirmation, even on the darker cuts. “Ramblin’ (Wo)man” evolves from Hank Williams’s heart-chained journey down a lost highway to a sexy, half-lidded lament of longing and serpentine guitars that side-wind around her lush voice. “Silver Stallion” echoes the weary faith of You Are Free (2003): The Highwaymen jaunt becomes an autumnal hymn, with cobwebbed glints of sunlight reflecting off the interwoven strands of Marshall’s deep, whispered vocals. And although James Brown’s “Lost Someone” remains the most deferential, she and the Three still make it their own; where the original torch song by the Famous Flames was a fiery, explosive blues, this version is a flickering candlelight against the picture of a lost lover, a throaty moan rather than a raw howl.
It’s the two original tracks, ironically, that form the crux of Jukebox: the nod to Dylan, “Song to Bobby,” and a reworking of the 1998 Cat Power track “Metal Heart.” The former is a sly, loving reference to Dylan’s own “Song to Woody” (one of two originals among a sea of covers on his 1962 self-titled debut), and it incorporates the sound of a Blood on the Tracks-era session, a sweetly trickling story-song that acts as a conceptual cover by acknowledging the folk traditions of incorporation and personalization that bind Marshall to Zimmerman to Williams to Guthrie (“an’ Cisco an’ Sonny an’ Leadbelly, too”). The latter is a moving self-portrait, a song that ten years ago was a soul-shattered, hollow-eyed ballad. Here, it’s a swirling, turbulent but ultimately victorious self-cover that measures the distance, both artistic and emotional, covered by Cat Power in a decade of addiction, loss, and recovery.
As the soulful, music-noir churn of the band grinds and whirls around her, Marshall sings and howls against the crashing waves that crescendo in a supple emotional whirlpool, and when she whispers from its center: “I once was lost, but now I’m found/ was blind, but now I see.” It’s no longer a scathing, laconic admission of despair but a statement of well-earned and careworn hope, heard in the orange streetlamp glow outside of a blistering blues joint in Memphis. And this time, you believe her.