“The Covers Record” is a weird album, but an even weirder one to come from singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, 28, who calls herself Cat Power. The 12-song collection of traditionals, rock staples and bootlegged obscurities would seem natural if released by a restless troubadour in the folk-rock tradition, say, Richard Buckner or even Elliott Smith. Marshall, however, is more like a troubled nomad, a self-admitted suicidal recluse who wears hopeless despair on her sleeve.
Because of her infamous stage fright and frequent onstage breakdowns, she makes Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval look like Bruce Springsteen. She’s also an artist who didn’t start playing music until her 20s, has released only four albums and was quoted recently as saying, “I don’t buy records, I don’t collect records — I’m not obsessed with music.” You’d never know it from the sound of “The Covers Record.”
There are all types of cover albums: covers made by fans (Yo La Tengo’s “Fakebook”), covers made by musicians to turn listeners on to underappreciated artists (Lyle Lovett’s “Step Inside This House”) and covers made as giant fuck yous (Nick Cave and the Bad Seed’s “Kicking Against the Pricks”). Rarely, though, do artists completely strip original material of all familiarity and reconstruct them in their own sensibility the way that Cat Power has here.
The album starts boldly with a version of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that just shouldn’t work. Marshall, though, deconstructs everything famous about the tune: the Jagger swagger, the overt sexuality, the riff, hell, even the chorus. Through depressed guitar strumming, nervous, hushed vocals and a sly gender switch (“I’m trying to make some girl,” becomes an emphasized “boy”), it’s transformed into a distinctly feminine portrait of boredom and exhaustion. Later, she strips her own “In This Hole” (from “What Would the Community Think”) down even further, her whispering wails accompanied by only a repetitious, minor-key piano melody. The same approach works more beautifully when she tackles the Velvet Underground’s hopeful “I Found a Reason,” her stretch and strain owing more to Moe Tucker than Lou Reed.
The prototypes for what Marshall accomplishes here are Bob Dylan’s two overlooked, equally intimate blues cover records from the ’90s, “Good as I’ve Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong.” On both, Dylan updated and revived traditional standards with raspy vocals and understated arrangements, infusing them with fatigue and terminal heartbreak. Both are Dylan albums, not cover records, and despite its title, the same can be said of Cat Power’s “The Covers Record.” It’s not clear that she’s deliberately trying to invoke Dylan, but she does top his version of “Kingsport Town” and give his “Paths of Victory” a humorless, self-conscious read.
This collection, like her last record, the near-masterpiece “Moon Pix” (1998), is so naked, candid and lonesome that you could clear out a room if you put it on in public. And playing it for a depressed friend would be like handing them a loaded gun. During several numbers you can actually hear the hiss of dead air in the arrangements, as Marshall manages to use bleak silence as an instrument. It’s a nostalgic sound, of old 78s and late nights, one that needs tissues and cigarettes, a bottle of bourbon and a little hopeless abandon.