I’m not sure what the moment was when Cat Power “broke.” Was it her singing “Sea of Love” on some Connecticut Life insurance commercial, or doing that Cat Stevens song on the diamond commercial, or having her gawky/glamour/gamine form projected sky-high into the exterior of the Museum of Modern Art as part of video artist Doug Aitken’s Sleepwalkers, or was it that shot of her taken by Richard Avedon, not long before he died, that ran in The New Yorker: atypically slathered in heavy eye makeup, wearing a Bob Dylan T-shirt and a pair of jeans provocatively untucked enough to reveal a thatch of pubic hair? Oooooh, eat that, Britney!
Our not-quite-pop anti-diva is more likely to frame the desire of Italian fashion photographers and neurotic teen girls on LiveJournal (is that still going?) than the paparazzi. She’s always crept under the radar of Big Media, which is the genius of culty-cult status: You can be famous, but you can also get left alone. It’s allowed Chan Marshall, the erstwhile Atlantan – Fellini’s Pizza, holla! – who records as Cat Power, to steadily, even sneakily, build up an impressive career while seeming to be in the process of dismantling the notion of “career.” I swear, without her sotto voce, somnambulatory alto, and its earthy Southern elements, there might never have been a Norah Jones, or a generation of Starbuck’s-approved, post-Lilith Fair, singer-songwriters. Leslie Feist may be the best of them, but Leslie Feist never kept me awake at night, listening, and Leslie Feist probably has the eccentric edges of her personality tucked away somewhere for later. The thing about Marshall is she always wears it on her sleeve. She’s not quite professional, which makes it oddly gratifying when she really, really tries to be.
The new Jukebox capitalizes on the breakthrough of Marshall’s radiant The Greatest (2006), which saw the singer step up to the challenge of working with a “real” band – an all-star assortment of old-school Memphis studio masters, such as guitarist Mabon “Teeny” Hodges, who co-wrote many of Al Green’s hits, and drummer Steve Potts from Booker T. & the MGs. The project reflected Marshall’s personal obsessions with the iconic aura of Memphis as a key site in the Civil Rights-era South, and gave her the chance to mesh her formerly bare-boned songs with those lush, simmering Stax/Volt grooves. As many YouTube clips attest, it worked transformative wonders in concert, as a performer who formerly verged on the autistic flowered into something like professional maturity. Last summer, as she headlined at Chicago’s Pitchfork Media Music Festival, Marshall still had her mojo intact. Her group was killer, an offshoot called the Dirty Delta Blues Band that featured the tastefully nuanced Mr. White on drums and Judah Bauer, the eruptive guitarist from Jon Spencer’s Blues Explosion. The outfit’s rewired versions of Dusty Springfield and Otis Redding felt at once classic and contemporary, Marshall’s self-conscious mannerisms undoing memories of the pop standards even as she remade them.
Jukebox works entirely in that vein. Amid songs by Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, and Janis Joplin, there’s stuff here that just sounds odd (“New York, New York”), because it thoroughly discards the original melody and becomes a caprice. And there’s stuff here that sounds perfect, like the version of Bob Dylan’s hymn “I Believe in You,” with Marshall emoting over rough drums and raw guitar that could be an outtake from Exile on Main St. The Rolling Stones are frequently evoked (and not only on the cover image of the singer copping a Mick Jagger strut). George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One for Me” is a joyous evocation of the late-1960s gospel-grunge that the band claimed during its own infatuation with Southern roots music. A retake of James Brown’s “Lost Someone” strips away even that veneer. Delivering the lyrics with a spartan ardor, the singer is accompanied only by some echoing guitar and brushed drums.
As much as Jukebox is about hero worship, Marshall achieves her own pinnacle when she pens the lyrics, about hero worship, in “Song to Bobby.” It’s a catalogue of moments in which her life might have intersected with that of Bob Dylan. The music, with subtle piano notes and a contemplative medium tempo, is gently imagined as a backing track from some circa-1965 Dylan studio session, Marshall singing at her wispiest, here and there inflecting with a bit of Bob in her larynx (as she does on a resplendent version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)” from the I’m Not There soundtrack). It’s moving, because it’s so personal, and because her voice gives way when she pushes for meaning. There are no mannerisms, and no professional poise, either. In her desire to embrace her own spiritual heroes, Marshall may not become their equal, but perversely enough she’s never sounded more original.