By: Dennis Cook
A good cover tune should simultaneously awaken our pleasure in the original and reveal hitherto unknown angles. In the best cases, a cover can lay claim to a composition in a way that runs even with the original work. The Gourds' take on Snoop Dogg's "Gin And Juice" is both celebratory of the hip-hop classic and transformative. Obvious affection for the material isn't enough to justify releasing a cover. The Counting Crows' excreable version of Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" serves as a fine example of where simple exuberance can't overcome the other obvious problems. Some music is so iconic, so set in the original arrangement and harmonies, that any attempt to boost it just sounds silly and wrongheaded.
Sadly, Cat Power's Jukebox (released January 22 on Matador Records) and Shelby Lynne's Just A Little Lovin' (released January 29 on Lost Highway) fall victim to many of the above pitfalls on their new (mostly) covers sets. There's no doubting the good intentions behind both albums but each, at best, can be called inoffensive. Both Lovin' and Jukebox are terrifically polite, approaching the listener like a supplicant that doesn't want to be a bother, which is weird given the self-possession and strength both ladies have shown in the past.
We'll get to their choice of material soon enough but much is made of both women's voices, especially in other reviews for these releases. Truth be told neither is the powerhouse their hype suggests. Lynne is shy and warm but characterless, while Chan Marshall's pipes have some womanly curves that suggest she'd leave scratches on your back but might also cry when she comes. Neither is Aretha or Dusty Springfield by a long shot, nor are they Grace Potter, Shannon McNally or Margo Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), all of whom beat them in terms of soul, interpretive ability and uniqueness.
Jukebox opens with a pair of rambler ditties, "New York" (as in, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere…") and Hank Williams' "Ramblin' (Wo)Man" (Cat Power adding the feminist "Wo"). The tone, established early and rarely deviated from, is quiet, slow, deliberate focus. By halving the tempos and singing in an indie rock version of American Idol-ese, Marshall drains most of the blood out of otherwise fine songs. The Dirty Delta Blues Band, which includes guitarist Judah Bauer (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and drummer Jim White (The Dirty Three), is kept on a tight leash, underplaying throughout in a way that sounds a little bored. The piano and organ touches by Spooner Oldham are nice but nothing particularly stands out, largely due to the arrangements. I'm guessing they're going for seductive but they sound downright somnambulant on James Brown's "Lost Someone," Marshall's own "Song To Bobby" and Joni Mitchell's "Blue," which is SUCH a terrible fit and ends the main album on a particularly sour note. The 5-track bonus disc in the Deluxe Edition has a sleepy (read: exhausted) run through Nick Cave's "Breathless" and a clunky Spanish language cut, "Angelitos Negros," that suggests she should stick to English. A nice, mournful take on Hank Cochran's radio hit "She's Got You" ends the bonus disc, one of the few highlights outside of a roaring, ballsy Hill Blues style cover of Bob Dylan's "I Believe In You" on the main set. Unlike 2000's The Covers Album, there's few revelations. Mostly, Cat Power seems lost in her recent hype, buying into her new classic soul crooner rep, but she's a long way from being Bettye LaVette or Sharon Jones.
Lynne fares even less well on her Dusty Springfield inspired Lovin'. Four out of ten tracks here - "Just a Little Lovin'," "Breakfast in Bed," "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," and "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore" – come from the legendary Dusty In Memphis. That's an album many folks still throw on when makin' whoopee but it's hard to imagine anyone doing the same with Lynne's versions, maybe couples that have obligatory once-a-year birthday sex. Every cut here, save for the Lynne-penned "Pretend" (absolutely best thing here), was performed by Springfield at some point. Despite all the seemingly correct touches like using Frank Sinatra's microphone, recording at the grand Capitol Records Studio and employing producer Phil Ramone (Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand and a multitude of others), this comes off as a wannabe nostalgia gimmick. Remember the point about taking on iconic songs? Lynne does that again and again here, coming up short against both Springfield and Dionne Warwick (Burt Bacharach & Hal David's "Anyone Who Had A Heart") and Jerry Butler (Randy Newman's "I Don't Want To Hear It Anymore"). Lynne is always most moving and interesting when she's plying her autobiography with a single guitar or other minimal instrumentation, which she does beautifully on "Pretend" and The Rascals' "How Can I Be Sure," which closes the album with a bittersweet question mark. However, she's mostly surrounded by busy instrumentation in service of material she simply doesn't have the voice to bring off. Lovin' is a fine idea, reportedly suggested to her by Barry Manilow, but the execution and material are way off the mark.
Like jazz standards, pop music deserves interpreters that enliven things creatively. In this regard, both Jukebox and Just A Little Lovin' fail almost completely. Those seeking a great example of a female singer digging into quality material should check out Linda Ronstadt's Prisoner In Disguise (1975) and Heart Like A Wheel (1974), where she lays into Little Feat, Anne McGarrigle, Neil Young, Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton and many others with a gusto and imagination that remains undiminished to this day. A couple worthy lady-sung (mostly) covers albums of more recent vintage are Meg Baird's Dear Companion (2007) - where the Espers singer adds gold to traditional songs, Jimmy Webb and others – and Hazeldine's Orphans (1998), an underground jewel that dips into mining songs, Peter Gabriel, Radiohead, East River Pipe, Gram Parsons and others.
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