The Covers Record Turns 20

The Covers Record Turns 20

I couldn’t be hearing what I thought I was hearing. It just couldn’t be right. Chan Marshall was onstage singing a Rolling Stones song, but it wasn’t a Rolling Stones song. Marshall, shaggy and luminous and visibly uncomfortable with the prospect of a room full of people looking at her, had just sung the opening line from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” She’d sung it over a dreamy acoustic-guitar fugue with no strut or slither to it. She’d made the song sad. None of this scanned. I figured I must’ve been imagining it.

This was 1999, and going to a Cat Power show already felt like stepping onto an unreal plane. If you’d read enough articles about Chan Marshall, then you knew that the show might not last. She might freak out, get embarrassed, run offstage mid-song and never return. So people in the crowd tried to be supportive, yelled to her that they loved her. This made things worse. Between songs, she’d stammer and mutter. When she played songs, she seemed to shift things over to a ghost-reality. I went to that show because I loved “Cross Bones Style” and I wanted to hear “Cross Bones Style” live. She didn’t play it. Instead, I got “Satisfaction.” I thought. Maybe. Wasn’t sure. Couldn’t Google the setlist yet. Put it out of my mind. Had to be wrong.

A year later, Cat Power’s The Covers Record showed up at the college-radio station where I was spending too much of my time. And there it was again: The Cat Power version of “Satisfaction,” right there at the opening of the album. So now I had concrete evidence that this version of “Satisfaction” existed. And it still seemed strange and wrong and not real. “Satisfaction” must be one of the most-covered songs in the English language, but nobody, at least as far as I knew, had never made it sad before.

Even when Devo had famously deconstructed “Satisfaction,” they’d kept some version of the song’s famous dick-swinger of a riff intact. In the Cat Power version, the riff was gone. So was the chorus. All that was left was a melody, a few words, a dull ache: “Can’t you seeeee? I’m on a losing streak.” Chan Marshall’s version of “Satisfaction” is hushed and gorgeous. It’s now familiar and comforting — a soft and welcoming blanket of a song. There’s a bit of a playful wink in Marshall’s voice, too. Her delivery is a slow, jazzy drawl, a whispery Billie Holiday impression that you might do if you were drunk at a party, tired and head-spun and not quite ready to go home yet. But in 2000, Cat Power’s “Satisfaction” just seemed baffling — a stark and tiny provocation.

Cat Power’s “Satisfaction” was not a provocation. If anything, it was a retrenchment, an attempt to deflect attention. Moon Pix, Cat Power’s 1998 album, hadn’t been a hit in any conventional sense, but it had been a breakout. Where Chan Marshall had been a quiet cult sensation, a name known only to people who bought records on labels run by Sonic Youth members, Moon Pix made her vaguely famous-ish. Now, when she got nervous and ended a show early, the event might get a writeup in a magazine. So rather than make a new album, she released a few covers that she’d recorded as quickly as possible.

Marshall had been covering songs for a long time. On her early records, she’d reimagined songs from Tom Waits or Dead Moon or Hank Williams. On Moon Pix, she’d included a version of “Moonshiner,” an old folk song that Bob Dylan had sung in the early ’60s. For The Covers Record, she played a selection of songs that seemed pulled almost as random. There were canonical old hits, like “Satisfaction” and the 1959 doo-wop smash “Sea Of Love.” There were folk traditionals and ballads from old movies: Mae West and Duke Ellington’s “Troubled Waters,” Johnny Mathis’ “Wild Is The Wind.” There were songs from ’60s titans: Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Moby Grape. There was one song from Bill Callahan, Marshall’s ex. Marshall even covered herself, doing a new version of “In This Hole,” originally recorded for Marshall’s 1996 LP What Would The Community Think.

If you’d put the original versions of all those songs on a tape together, they would’ve been a jagged and jumbled and fascinating mess. But Chan Marshall just turned all of them into Cat Power songs. She sang over barely-there guitar or piano, usually accompanying only herself. (The only non-Marshall musician on the album is Matt Sweeney, then the frontman of fellow Matador act Chavez, who plays guitar on “Salty Dog.”) The Covers Record is the result of just a few quick recording sessions, and it plays as Marshall just murmuring whatever songs were in her head that day, altering them however she sees fit. At least a few of the songs are perfectly recognizable; “Sea Of Love,” after all, was already about as close to Cat Power as circa-1959 pop songs got. But she makes them hers.

The Covers Record has had a shelf life longer than anyone at Matador probably thought likely. If anything, I probably encounter Covers Record songs in the wild more often than I do Moon Pix songs. After all, you can throw a Cat Power cover song onto the soundtrack of a movie like Juno or V For Vendetta and give those films just a light sprinkling of existential bleakness, where something like “Nude As The News” would drag them all the way down into the realm of soul-sucking despair. So The Covers Record did something that no Cat Power album had previously even attempted. It worked as background music.

In the years that would follow The Covers Record, Chan Marshall would mostly conquer her stage-fright demons, to the point where she’d eventually open a damn Mumford & Sons arena tour. She’d evolve into a fascinatingly fluid artist, a singer-songwriter equally comfortable with Memphis soul and synthetic haze. Cat Power has become, in just about every way, a better artist in the 20 years since The Covers Record. But in the time since then, she’s never made me doubt my own memory.

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