It seems like much longer than a year since Cat Power’s “Jukebox” album was released; one of those January albums, maybe, that are unfairly forgotten when the end-of-year accounting is done. A handy reminder, though, comes with this lovely six-track EP of covers, culled from the same sessions, that acts as a kind of book-end to the year.
More even than the selections on “Jukebox”, “Dark End Of The Street” draws fearlessly from the canon: besides Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s title song, Chan Marshall has a crack at “Fortunate Son”, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”, Aretha’s “It Ain’t Fair”, “Ye Auld Triangle” and, perhaps especially dangerously, “Who Knows Where The Time Goes”. Nice taste, for sure.
And a very nice album, too. As with “Jukebox”, there aren’t many of those hazy deconstructions that Marshall historically specialised in circa “The Covers Record”. Given the general southern soul tilt of her last couple of records, it’s interesting to hear her grapple with the genre’s textbook showstoppers, “Dark End Of The Street” and “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”. On the latter, in particular, while her crack band broil away conventionally enough, Marshall is at once spotlit and elusive.
Rather than stage some kind of diva breakdown, she sticks pretty tightly to the song, but ducks out of the big lung stretches, implying emotional turmoil rather than trying to unleash the sort of fireworks that aren’t her style. By the end, the Dirty Delta Blues Band have ramped up to a big climax, but Marshall seems to have gone missing. Then, you can just make her out, wordlessly emoting in the distance, a ghostly and touching presence. It’s a fine sidestep.
“Fortunate Son” and “Ye Auld Triangle” (is that by Brendan Behan? I know it from The Pogues, but I’m sure they didn’t write it) are more radical rethinks, faithful to the tunes, but more understated still. The Creedence song is stripped back and slowed down, spacey and echoing, with Marshall’s voice tracked by a faint violin scrape and some exquisitely languourous piano (from Spooner Oldham, I wonder?). “Ye Auld Triangle”, meanwhile, is similarly scored, recast as a calm but measured blues.
“Who Knows Where The Time Goes” is the one time when she goes wandering way off the original tune; so far in fact that, as an organ and piano battle it out to see which can be most discreet, it’s hard to recognise the song. This, though, is part of the great charm of Chan Marshall, a singer who isn’t just capable of inhabiting songs but who can, when the mood takes her, subvert them entirely to her own vague, airy, utterly compelling aesthetic.
And, of course, do some fundamentally weird things, like leave what appear to be some of the best songs from the “Jukebox” sessions lying on the shelf until now.