Is it possible that an artist's most vital, interesting work is an album of covers?? I could see this happening in the 50s and 60s, when original material was often a rarity. But not from an artist like Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, who's written and recorded a respectable body of work of her own. Yet there is some power and magic to this release that keeps me coming back again and again where I normally listen to her other albums maybe once or twice a year. Chan must think it was a great album, too, because her last album was another set of covers.
Yet 2008's Jukebox had a country/soul sound to it, the sort of earthy, 60s worshipping sound that she adopted on her last non-covers album, The Greatest. I'm no great fan of her more current music. I think once she cleaned up her act and got all "professional" she became far less of an artist and more of a pseudo-celebrity, admired more for her personality and stage presence than her music. Well, at least I've got The Covers Record to hold onto. This is the covers album as a minimalist, stripped down, transformative ideal. Chan's performance on this album is naked and shiver inducing. It is both totally vulnerable and totally in control, fragile like a wilting flower yet as powerful as a tidal wave. She accompanies herself on just a guitar or a piano, turning every one of these songs into sad, beautiful things.
The album's essential strength is revealed right away when she delivers a plaintive version of the famous Rolling Stones single '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' but omits the chorus. It is practically a different song, and the line about being on a losing streak takes on a new poignancy. Assuming you've seen V For Vendetta, you'll already be familiar with the most astonishing moment on The Covers Record, the cover of the Velvet Underground's 'I Found A Reason.' All covers are debatablely better than the originals, but like Jimi Hendrix's re-working of 'All Along The Watchtower', Cat Power's piano-and-vocals-only version feels like how 'I Found A Reason' was always meant to sound. I tend to overuse words like "haunting" and "powerful", but this one is haunting and powerful. A lot of the songs on this album give me chills when I hear them, but this one gives me, uhh, double chills. And in a perfect example of how pacing and tracklisting can make a great album even better, The Covers Record saves its most light and celebratory songs for the end, the three-track-combo of 'Paths of Victory', 'Salty Dog', and 'Sea Of Love' giving the listener a nice pick-me-up after often heavy and dirge-like music. In fact, this is one of three albums that I always end up listening to when I'm going through a period of depression. It starts out sympathizing with me but by the end it's starting to talk me out of the valley of sadness.
In answer to my original question, I do think a covers album can be the most interesting and vital work of an artist. It's rare, but The Covers Record proves it can happen. Must hear.