Graham Reid | | 1 min read
Covers albums can be uneven and most often uncalled for: usually they represent some stopgap measure for an artist, and at their worst seem pretty pointless, like Patti Smith's recent Twelve in which she covered songs which had influenced her but she brought nothing to them other than her stylistic signature.
Or Bryan Ferry's recent Dylanology which only seemed to exist because way back Bryan had done well with a couple of Bob covers.
However Cat Power on this collection shows how it should be done. No stranger to covers -- she released The Covers Record about seven years ago and has usually popped a few onto her albums -- she here looks to (mostly) lesser known songs by James Brown, Jesse Mae Hempill, her hero Bob Dylan and Nick Cave.
She also includes two of her own songs (Metal Heart and the somewhat unsuccessful tribute to a young Dylan in Song to Bobby). Also here is Woman Left Lonely by Dann Penn and Spooner Oldham, the latter a guest musician.
She makes over one of Lee Clayton's least interesting songs Silver Stallion and successfully shifts it away from its country cliches, does a gender rewrite on Hank Williams' Ramblin' Man and soulfully covers the pre-funk James Brown song Lost Someone which sounds like it is being sung in a lonely bar as the waiter puts up the chairs. It is the standout.
What Cat Power brings here -- and she is ably supported by her Dirty Delta Blues band which is lean and subtle -- is a real sense of understanding to the lyrics and a voice which can move from confidence to fragility and world weariness. It takes self-assurance to totally retool some of these songs, notably New York and Don't Explain, songs almost exclusively associated with Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday.
But she pulls most of these songs off and takes you right into them.
At their best covers albums -- as with those by Dylan in the mid 90s -- can help an artist find their footing again if their muse has deserted them.
That this album came after Cat Power had a breakdown suggests that might have been part of the purpose here.
But this is not therapy in song or a stopgap album, it feels like a powerful statement and the way the material has been shifted from its origins make it fascinating and, in places, quite haunting.
The Deluxe Edition of this album comes with an extra disc of half a dozen other songs, among them the folksy Naked, If I Want to by Moby Grape from the '67 psychedelic pop-rock debut by that San Francisco band which is also an Essential Elsewhere album.