“God bless Mr. James Brown,” intones Chan Marshall, a/k/a Cat Power, on Friday night, from the remarkably dimly lit Apollo stage, in a rare moment of semi-casual discourse before her crack four-man backing crew, a/k/a Dirty Delta Blues, launches into the Godfather’s “Lost Someone.” Let us acknowledge up-front that “Dirty Delta Blues” is a pretty severe eye-roller as far as band names go; that they’re now evoking a sort of Southern-fried indie-rock version of Star Time live at the Apollo is potentially disastrous. Chan prefers to ditch the mic stand entirely, loom somewhat ominously over the edge of the stage, and slowly lope from one side to the other via a gangly, rubber-limbed strutting shuffle, like a narcotized rapper, as though trying to do the Kristen Wiig impression of her before Kristen Wiig even gets the chance. Her frail voice blows breathy, noir-ish smoke rings, every moaned vowel another trial to be borne. She sounds credibly aggrieved. To note that she lacks the irascible spark, the tortured howls, the impeccably histrionic showmanship of James Brown himself is neither surprising nor terribly fair, it’s true, but then again, she picked the venue and she picked the song.
This is Cat Power’s preference these days, to apply her singular, uneasily bewitching pathos almost entirely to the work of others: Dylan, the Stones, Creedence, Hank, Joni, etc. She’s got 2.5 cover records and counting, and what began as a striking and abrupt detour into the art of radical reinterpretation—draining the bawdy vivacity from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and leaving nothing but a terse, naked, entirely unrelated guitar figure and initially unfamiliar lyrics of mournfully elegant self-pity (“Can’t you see I’m on a losing streak?”)—has lately begun to feel like a rut, a dodge, a distraction, a tacit admission to a lack of new ideas from someone who has never seemed to lack them. On her new hit-or-miss EP (hence that .5) The Dark End of the Street, she pulls the same slow-it-down, mope-it-up routine on “Fortunate Son,” and the result is far less enthralling: How long is karaoke hour going to last?
The problem is that Chan’s own songs are generally far more compelling than her scorched-earth reshufflings of someone else’s. Her 1998 breakthrough, Moon Pix, was haunting, ethereal, profoundly unsettling bedroom-folk (“Suicide wallpaper,” as the Voice put it at the time) delivered by a relatively unknown quantity with either boundless confidence or no confidence whatsoever—early Cat Power shows were brutally uncomfortable affairs, the risk of an onstage crying jag or complete show-ending breakdown ever-present, like one long sustained unbearable wince. Eight years and a couple records later came The Greatest, the suicide wallpaper swapped out for swampy Memphis soul, the endless wince long since dissipated, our increasingly confident heroine having graduated from Magnet to the New Yorker. 2000’s The Covers Record, from whence “Satisfaction” sprung, felt like a temporary, necessary step in that evolution. But last year’s Jukebox and this year’s EP attempt the same tricks, with undeniable high points but an overall inclination to make great songs from a wide range of great artists sound both completely unrecognizable and almost exactly the same.
Thus on Friday night are all Chan’s chosen ones lovingly fed through a bleary late-night, last-call, faux-Stax filter, whether it’s “House of the Rising Sun” or “New York, New York” or “Lilac Wine.” One style, unfortunately, doesn’t fit all. “The Dark End of the Street,” a prodigiously covered late-’60s soul gem, thankfully sounds fantastic in the (arrgh) Dirty Delta Blues boys’ hands, particularly those of quietly theatrical drummer Jim White, calmly flipping his sticks between beats and launching full-extension cymbal crashes to complement guitarist Judah Bauer’s painstakingly bent moans and the warmly rumbling low end of bassist Erik Paparazzi and somewhat hammy keyboardist Gregg Foreman. (Lay off the tambourine, Gregg—this ain’t Aerosmith.) But the same approach proves disastrous just a song before, on Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You,” Patsy’s quiet dignity and forlorn, straightforward bellow now replaced with corny, vamped-up, heavily affected grandstanding. Even Cat Power’s own songs don’t necessarily fare well now: Moon Pix‘s “Metal Heart” goes from a shaky and heartbreaking hymn (its brief, bewildering echo of “Amazing Grace” is the record’s most devastating moment) to just another smoothed-out Saturday-night fish-fry serenade.
What keeps the show out of Profoundly Dull territory is Chan herself, her sort of sensual loopiness, jumping climactically down into the crowd for a verse or two but getting her microphone chord all tangled when she tries to jump back up, throwing roses from the stage into the crowd at show’s end and not vice versa. You can argue that making all these songs your own requires more skill than making your own songs from scratch. But as she’s one of the more distinct and transfixing songwriters we’ve got, the jukebox route has grown tedious. In this instance, at least, we’d much rather hear songs we’ve never heard before, rather than songs we know intimately that just sound like songs we’ve never heard before. Pay homage to the Godfather by letting him be.