New York singer-songwriter Chan Marshall found instant acclaim in the mid-'90s thanks to a willfully untamed voice that rendered songs marinated in a severe sadness. A decade later, Marshall's once-jagged instrument has been sanded into a smoky and serviceable tool on the new "Jukebox," her second collection of cover songs (recorded under her alias, Cat Power) and the album offers a slight expansion in her emotional range as well. Sometimes a hint of joy even curls the corners of these lapidary renditions of rock, soul and country classics like a wan smile.
"The Covers Record," released in 2000, her first pass at the conceit, starkly underlined her old interpretive limitations, with every song delivered in the same dour, half-dead drawl. On "Jukebox," her arrangement for the theme to Martin Scorsese's movie "New York, New York" is likewise subdued, but more out of choice than technical necessity. Vocally, a recent apprenticeship in classic R&B has animated that drawl with a little slyness and sexiness. If you don't hear any of the genre's ecstasy, at least Marshall's no longer quite so morose.
But fear of that ecstasy means "Jukebox" is mostly come-hither looks that are never acted upon. Once guilty of affected passion, forced subtlety is now Marshall's great crutch. Sometimes her restraint works, as on James Brown's "Lost Someone," on which she manages an appealing vulnerability. But too often, as with a desultory new version of her own "Metal Heart," the loss of those old cracked notes and pained yowls in favor of a middling soul singer's competence proves a surprisingly poor trade-off.
-- Jess Harvell
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