When you think of “New York, New York,” traditionally sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t something “sexy.” The song instead brings to mind Broadway, kicking can-can dancers and hoards of Hawaiian-shirted, binocular-necklaced tourists running around frantically, hot dog in one hand, small child in the other.
But when the slow and sultry bass drum kicks up in Cat Power’s cover of the same song on her most recent album, Jukebox, short, stocky men in culturally mismatched wardrobes don’t appear. Instead, the lights dim and ’20s-era “Great Gatsby” women materialize as Chan Marshall, the singular genius behind Cat Power, croons as if on her fifth pack of cigarettes that day, “I want to be a part of it / New York, New York.” Her breathy, saturated voice reeks of a woman’s languor on a long couch with cocktail glass in hand. It’s too sexy.
Jukebox is Cat Power’s second covers record, the first being 2000’s aptly named The Covers Record, which held offerings such as a single-guitar-and-voice version of The Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” What’s different about Jukebox is that, beginning with Marshall’s astounding The Greatest, her songs became incredibly lush with orchestration and fuller production quality, no longer adhering to the “single eccentric woman and guitar” formula. Now it’s the “single eccentric woman and whole fucking jazz band.”
Jukebox consists of new, surprising (and perhaps eyebrow-raising) renditions of songs by well-known artists including Janis Joplin, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and even Cat Power herself (the record has a new version of “Metal Heart” from her 1998 album Moon Pix).
However, saying the songs are new renditions of older songs is an understatement: The songs are altered completely to suit Cat Power’s smoky style. In fact, everything but the lyrics are almost completely different. Yes, these songs are the same ones you listened to on your record player with your parents, but intrinsically, they are not.
Chan Marshall just seems to have a penchant for making classic songs her own. “New York, New York” is injected with a lethal dose of sexy. Hank William’s twangy, country-laden “Ramblin’ Man” is turned into a suitable song for a smoky jazz bar in hipster New Orleans. And Joni Mitchell’s piano ballad “Blue” is redone with touches of moog and synthesizer, Marshall’s hoarse voice pulling off moans of “Blue, songs are like tattoos” in homage to Mitchell, but she incorporates throaty vocals the original didn’t contain.
Jukebox contains a sultry and compelling sound that’s hard to create and keep in a covers record, as the nature of covers records is copycatting. It’s easy for the listener to jump to track two, put down the earphones and say, “I’ve heard this before.” Instead, Marshall takes her chops and smoky voice and wields her songwriting abilities in ways that re-tune the classic songs, allowing listeners to find new nuances and new feelings in the old singles. Her efforts will surely cause nay-sayers to sit back, rub their chins thoughtfully and discard snarky comments two minutes in, leaving earphones in place while enjoying a damn fine record.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars