Cat Power: Jukebox

[Matador Records]

Is Cat Power a better songwriter or song interpreter? If her latest two albums are any indication, the latter is true. On The Greatest, her critically-acclaimed 2006 album of original songs backed by Memphis session aces, Cat Power (which, for the uninitiated is the "nom du Rock" of singer/songwriter Chan Marshall) crafted a couple of gauzy gems, but mostly the affair was flat and boring, a waste of some gifted musicians' time and little else.

But with her second album of covers, Jukebox, she flexes her mesmerizing, smokily elastic voice on a collection of fantastic songs, which she immediately turns into her own. Case in point is the Old Blue Eyes standard "New York New York," which is transformed into a slow, electric-piano driven torch song, devoid of the over-the-topness that Liza and Frank brought to it.

Marshall, in fact, gives practically every track that kind of ghostly glaze, but unlike on The Greatest, there are actual good songs beneath the haze. Marshall's voice carries a magnetic emotionalism that anchors each track. Her pleading on James Brown's ballad, "Lost Someone," isn't hysterical like JB's, but more resemblant of a woman lonely and crying in her bedroom, giving it a more intimate vibe that pulls you in with hushed urgency.

Along with tremendous re-workings (some with remnants of her Memphis Soul flirtations) of songs by Joni Mitchell ("Blue"), The Highwaymen ("Silver Stallion") and Cat Power (she remakes "Metal Heart" from her first album), Marshall includes a folksy, pastoral original love song to Bob Dylan ("Song to Bobby") and, the highlight, a shiver-sending version of "A Women Left Lonely," popularized by Janis Joplin. Maybe like Ella or Billie, Marshall should consider being a Jazz diva who pours herself into others' writing. Or maybe she should just write better songs. Grade: A

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