Cat Power fades, Joe Jackson sparkles, and Shelby Lynne blows it
Cat Power Jukebox (Matador) Cat Powerâ"a.k.a. Chan Marshallâ"has become a darling of the indie-rock world by evoking gut-wrenching sensitivity. But itâ’s a sensitivity that feels so well-worn and safe that it might as well be the musical version of Wal-Mart or McDonaldâ’s. This isnâ’t necessarily a bad thingâ"thereâ’s comfort and safety in familiarity.
Marshall offers that comfort again on Jukebox, a collection of covers of songs by some of Americaâ’s iconic singers: James Brown, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holiday, and Hank Williams. (Also included are two original compositions and some more obscure covers, including one song by Oak Ridgeâ’s Lee Clayton.)
Marshallâ’s voice, an achingly beautiful and distinctive Southern drawl, tends to consume everything it touches. As an artist, sheâ’s impenetrable. Maybe the job of musicians is to make pleasant sounds and not open themselves up to listeners. But when I listen to performances by Williams, Dylan, Mitchell and Holiday, I feel like I know who they are. This is superficialâ"those artists were always a little rough around the edges, lending at least a whiff of humanity. But listening to them, I feel like they understand my heartache and loneliness. Theyâ’re on my side. Art is able to bridge a gap between the artist and the listener. Iâ’ve been listening to Chan Marshall for years now and I donâ’t have the slightest idea who she is. Like the rest of her work, Jukebox immediately grabs me but is quickly forgotten. (Joe Tarr)
Joe Jackson Rain (Rykodisc) You remember all those Joe Jackson albums, donâ’t you? Heaven & Hell, Jumpinâ’ Jive, Big World, Afterlife, Willpower, Joe Jackson: The Collection, Joe Jackson: The Ultimate Collection, and Joe Jackson: The Ultimate Masters Collection? No, of course you donâ’t. No one does. You remember Look Sharp! and Night and Day. Well, lucky for you, so does Joe Jackson.
Rain is Joe Jacksonâ’s latest, and to call it a return to form would be a bit off the beam, since the guy has as many forms as the IRS. A hybrid of his two most popular albums, stripped-down lean and listener-friendly as all get-out, the album reunites Jackson with his Look Sharp! bandmates Graham Maby and Dave Houghton to create a unit that puts him at the third wheel of the Elton John/Ben Folds troika: pop-piano, performed in a neat packet. Seriously, itâ’s pretty damn catchy. If there was still any such thing as radio airplay you wouldnâ’t be able to drive to the post office without tapping the steering wheel to it. As it stands, youâ’re more likely to be checking it out against your will at restaurants and coffee shops.
Opening with the ivory ostinado of â“Invisible Man,â” the album lifts and separates, a glad tune here, a wistful one there. Overall it imparts exactly the uptown feeling he seems to be afterâ"itâ’s raining, youâ’ve got an umbrella, things on the whole are actually pretty good, letâ’s go have dinner someplace nice. Drop by your local Starbucks and give it a listen. (Frederick Bannister)
Shelby Lynne Just a Little Lovinâ’ (Lost Highway) Dusty Springfield was an effortlessly intimate singer. She could present herself as vulnerableâ"broken, evenâ"and drenched in sexuality at the same time. There werenâ’t any tricks; she had a strong, rich voice and a striking command of the ambiguities of the material she tackled, especially on her milestone 1969 record Dusty in Memphis. She had an almost frighteningly clear-eyed awareness of the space that separates people but never stooped to cynicism or resignation.
Shelby Lynne, on the other hand, has a perfectly fine voice, but its one-note sex-pot huskiness pales next to Springfieldâ’s. Her approach on Just a Little Lovinâ’, a collection of nine songs from Dusty in Memphis and the new track â“Pretend,â” is to pause and catch her voice in lackluster imitation of Springfield. On her original version of â“Breakfast in Bed,â” for instanceâ"â“Breakfast in bed and a kiss or three/You donâ’t have to say you love meâ”â"Springfield is heart-wrenchingly aware of her own need and her partnerâ’s; the consequences of restraint seem worse than the inevitable results of cheating. Itâ’s as grown-up and complex a take on desire as pop music has ever delivered. On the same song, Lynne sounds like sheâ’s just giving in.
Multiple Grammy-winner Phil Ramoneâ’s production doesnâ’t help. He mistakes slow for sultry and lounge for lush. Dusty in Memphis deserves tribute, but the best way to do that is to buy it and listen. (Matthew Everett)
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