Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, knows how to do covers. It’s really as simple as that. But, it should also be noted that she knows how to turn any song into a low, sleepy dirge. Her voice is perfectly suited to the style though, smokey and full. On her latest release, Dark End of the Street, Marshall continues the theme, sometimes hitting the right note, but more often dully droning sorrowfully.
After working with songs like the Stones “Satisfaction” and Dylan’s “I Believe in You”, Marshall turns mostly to 60’s soul to turn into loungey rasps. For instance, James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street” is a powerful, harmonized southern soul gem. Carr, the son of a Mississippi Baptist preacher, sang in gospel choirs, and it shows. Chan Marshall, while a Southerner raised by a blues pianist father, doesn’t have that same religious upbringing (to my knowledge), and that seems to greatly alter the music. As a genre, soul is, just as its name implies, highly spiritual. Combing through the 60’s soul stacks, you’ll come across musician after musician who started off singing in churches, and the spiritual power of their performance shows.
She also uses the EP to show some guts as evident by her rendition of an Otis Redding gem. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)” sounds good under the control of Marshall’s lush, beautiful voice. The instrumentation is clean, interesting and calm. But, again, Redding was a Macon, Georgia Baptist choir member. His unfortunately short-lived career is full of mind-boggling singles; Redding’s voice was one of the most amazing of the soul era. Marshall’s voice is great, but the soul isn’t the same.
Later in the EP, there’s an Aretha Franklin tune. Wouldn’t you have guessed it, Aretha was born to a Memphis Baptist minister. “It Ain’t Fair” is a good rendition, in Marshall’s version. Her piano chording is perfectly suited to her voice, deep and rich, never missing a note. But the Aretha deep cut, with a restrained horn section and backing gospel vocals is something that Marshall just can’t replicate.
When she sings Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, it turns from a car commercial jam into a slow, slinky blues. This is the only song on the EP that really transforms the original into something different, something new and better. Instead of a roar, the chorus is sorrowful and murky. “It ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one” turns from a rebellious rally cry into a sad statement of truth.
Tack on a throwaway Pogues cover, and a good, if dull, Fairport Convention track, and you’ve got an EP. There’s a simple lesson learned though. Chan Marshall doesn’t have the same soul that Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding. And if you needed to listen to an EP to figure that out, send me an e-mail and I’ll get you a list of 60’s soul records to pick up for homework.