Covering songs is a science. Remaining faithful to the original creator while simultaneously reinventing the wheel as you sing lyrics that were written by somebody else is no easy balance to strike. But it takes an exceptionally unique individual to render a well-known tune almost unrecognizable.
Cat Power’s Chan Marshall is a master at transformative cover songs, which was displayed on her two previous well-loved cover albums, The Covers Record and Jukebox, where she turned stomping libidinous renegades like The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” into lethargic and yearning dirges.
Marshall’s newest self-produced installment in this series, Covers, transforms and reinvents both well-known hits and beloved obscurities by the likes of The Replacements, Billie Holiday, Frank Ocean, Iggy Pop, Lana Del Rey, Kitty Wells, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, the Pogues, Dead Man’s Bones, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Throughout the album, Marshall draws from each track a well of untouched themes and nuances with lush, dynamic arrangements—a strong departure from her signature minimal sound. The album opens with a swinging piano-laden take on Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” trading Ocean’s soulful keening and weeping organ solos for a foggy lounge groove with tentative breaks of snare hits and reverb-drenched guitar.
A remarkable standout moment on the record is when Marshall covers herself on “Unhate,” an unnerving and defiant reinterpretation of the song “Hate” from The Greatest. Unless listeners had the lyrics right in front of them, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking these were two completely different songs. With chopped up vocals over twangy lo-fi strumming and full-bodied idiosyncratic percussion, never has Chan Marshall uttering the words “I said I hate myself and I want to die,” felt more unhinged. The only way I can describe the track is that it feels like you are listening to Marshall perform an exorcism on her past self right before your very eyes.
On her approach to covering songs, Marshall has said “When I work, I don’t look back—I just keep going. Trusting my gut is a survival technique. My approach is elementary—it’s not technical or super academic. My mission is to complete what I see, and as soon as the fibers of that vision are realized, I move on to the next song.” And this organic outlook and radical sense of self-trust is precisely what makes this record sound as fresh as it does.
From faithful tributes to Jackson Browne/Nico’s “These Days,” The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular,” and Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” to the propulsive, ominous rattle on her update of Nick Cave’s “I Had a Dream Joe,” and the roiling guitar feedback on her cover of Iggy Pop’s “Endless Sea,” Marshall subverts listeners’ expectations at every turn, transcending the art of covering itself and eviscerating any lingering expectations of her that audiences might have held onto in the past.
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