by Bryn Esplin
It’s impossible to read a review of Cat Power without laborious detail given to the troubled life of Chan Marshal, but often these biopic criticisms do nothing more than impose a familiar frame around the “unstable” artist, insisting on her new, successful recovery, and forcing the happy ending. This would be the death of Cat Power. Recovery is a nice thing; instability is beautiful.
The technology of Chan’s cover is premised on the very essence of language itself: it’s unstable, indeterminate, and yet perpetually communicable. Her cover is not an obliteration or disregard of the “authentic”; in fact, it necessarily relies on the recognizability of the original to form the new.
Cat Power is a magnifier of the beautiful moment, the lyric that melts. Take her cover of “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” from the first Covers: “But he can’t be a man cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me.” I have heard the Rolling Stones version ten trillion times, but I had never heard that line before. It simply never existed before Chan sang it.
Walter Benjamin helps explain her strange phenomenon of magnification: By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of [the new voice] it extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action.
Instead of the song as a closed system, forever preserved in the aura of the original, Chan opens it up, delicately, unfolding each lyric. The familiar is new again. It’s uncanny.
Jukebox operates under the same logic. Stripping "I Believe in You" (a cover from Slow Train Coming) down to a single electric guitar shuffle, she distills the solitary substance of faith. With a sloven slide-guitar, she rides off into nowhere on the Highwaymen's "Silver Stallion," and she lulls Sinatra's "New York, New York" into a languorous, ominous ballad, lingering over some words, neglecting others.
Never afraid of her own medicine (perhaps a Judy Garland-esque cocktail) she dismantles and reconstructs her own songs, most notably 1998's "Metal Heart" and 2006’s “Could We.” But this is never egotistical, for the cover insists the I is always another.
Sure, Cat Power is unstable: It’s her weapon of choice.
Monday, January 28, 2008
by Bryn Esplin