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She can't play, but she can sure sing
on September 3, 2006
If you've been listening to the Cat Power album, The Greatest, you'll know that Chan Marshall makes a superb blues singer. The Covers Record, a likable collection of cover songs recorded in the late 1990s, serves as a nice introduction to Marshall's blues/folk singing style. There is no backup band on this stripped down album, only Marshall's voice and one other instrument per song. Spare, but it gets the job done.
Some reviewers have fawned over her version of the Stones classic "Satisfaction." I'm okay with that, but I'm considerably more enchanted by "Salty Dog," the country blues standard made famous by Mississippi John Hurt. Marshall does a wonderful version of it, easily on par with any folk or blues singer you can think of. One reason this song stands out for me is that she sticks to her strength (bluesy singing) and turns the guitar duties over to an actual professional, Matt Sweeney. He does nice job playing fingerstyle guitar John Hurt fashion. It's so easy to like this song. It's simple, clean, and sounds really great.
If only she had followed this approach for every song on the album! This could have easily been a five star album... not even just five stars, but a THOUSAND stars! But instead, Marshall prefers schlubing her way through the piano and guitar parts rather than have one of her talented friends provide a proper accompaniment. The Covers Record has a DIY quality to it as a result. Although I do like The Covers Record--it's one of her best albums--I keep thinking of how great it might have been if only she focused exclusively on singing.
Fortunately for us, Marshall's great voice saves the album. The CD is quite listenable even in spite of some of her bumbling and plodding accompaniments. I approve of the stripped down approach--no drum machines, no distorted guitars, no overdubbed harmonies. Truly, it would have been a formula for absolute perfection, if only!
Ah well... what are Cat Power fans if not an exasperated bunch? Look at any forum about her. It's one post after the next making excuses for her screwups, or making suggestions for improvement: "Chan would be so good if only she didn't cry and stop playing, or if only Chan would tune her guitar, or if only Chan would complete the song without messing up, or if only Chan would get a good producer who could help her." Somehow these problems never seem to arise with her peers like Ani Difranco, Regina Spektor, PJ Harvey, etc... but Cat Power fans have to learn to be tolerant. Every song can't be a winner. And in her case, it's more like every tenth song might be a winner, but only if the moon is right, she happens to be in a good mood, isn't drunk, nobody says anything mean to her, and she decides to let someone else play guitar for a change. Then and only then you may just get to hear something really magical come out of her.
In any event, The Covers Record has some remarkable moments and if you can accept its DIY limitations, it's a good listen.