Considering that she’s a beautiful woman who has forged a significant portion of her reputation out of covering everybody from Janis Joplin to Billie Holiday, from the Velvet Underground to Oasis, the music press don’t half get a kick out of rather reverently musically intellectualising Cat Power. From Uncut magazine’s assertion that “she doesn’t cover songs. She uncovers them” to Rolling Stone’s suggestion that she “is not the new Dylan, or even the old Dylan”, Chan Marshall has been capable, for a good ten years now, of reducing the sort of world-weary critics who so delight in stamping upon the metaphorical heads of pretty girls who have a tendency to sing other people’s songs, into dribbling, sycophantic, hyperbole-spouting teenage fanboys.
Marshall is, of course, considerably more than just a pretty girl who has a tendency to sing other peoples songs. The Dark End of the Street EP is, admittedly, a collection of six covers – recorded alongside the twelve tracks which made up January’s Jukebox, her second all-covers record. But what makes her approach to the sometimes frown-inducing art of the cover so irresistible and, indeed, notable, is the body-melting combination of her astonishing voice – somewhere between a female Leadbelly and liquid cigar smoke; her remarkable ability to locate tracks in the very depths of deified artists’ back-catalogues, looking beyond the conventional structures of musical mythology and hitting upon pieces with which she can really do something; and the elegantly complex creativity that she brings to the act of reconsidering other artists’ work: something approaching a mirror image of what makes her greatest (!) original moments so entirely wonderful, and yet something simultaneously deeply respectful of her legendary predecessors’ achievements.
Unfortunately, The Dark End of the Street is by no means a perfect illustration of this, however. Carrying on from where Jukebox left off, it balances the short of nuanced, evocative musicianship that Marshall has, over the years, become famous for (her relationship with current associates, the Dirty Delta Blues Band, is arguably even more impressive than former trysts with the likes of Al Green’s backing-troupe) with an interpretive intelligence that makes the majority of her contemporaries appear positively crass. It would not be unfair to say, however, that only a couple of what are, ultimately, rejected tracks, genuinely feel like Cat Power at her soul-crumpling best. And so while her cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Fortunate Son’ is a delicately ravishing, violin-flecked masterpiece, and her version of Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long’ overawes the listener with the sense that the Hammond Organ’s fall from grace was a major late-20th Century cultural-catastrophe, a couple of Aretha covers and a Pogues reinterpretation feel like little more than failed experiments: elegant failures, but failures nonetheless.
In truth, Cat Power is one of only a handful of modern-day artists capable of releasing a rarity EP around Christmastime that will unquestionably succeed in leaving a cynical world feeling like she’s done them a favour, as opposed to a financial disservice. Nothing – absolutely nothing – about The Dark End of the Street feels remotely like a cash-in, in exactly the same manner that nothing about Cat Power has ever felt, or ever will feel, in any way contrived, pretentious or formulaic: in any way anything other than extraordinary. And an occasionally brilliant EP is hardly likely to threaten the credibility of that truism.