Review Summary: As a whole, Jukebox isn't a misstep, but it fails to capitalize on the promise of Jukebox's best assets, the most important ones being of Chan's own design.Jukebox
, for all its charming follies, puts more emphasis on “cat” than “power.” Like the cats that live in the room down the hall and hate
me (it’s rather sad, actually), Chan Marshall juggles apathetic moods with glimpses of emotional interest, making Jukebox
a jumbled bag of simple delights and uncharacteristic duds (the former slightly outweighing the latter). They aren’t bad, just lame, a mishmash of Chan’s prowess as an arresting storyteller and one that seems run through the motions; reconstructing songs to fit her soulful personality seems a chore for Cat Power and sometimes it is for us, too. This sentiment is pushed to the front in the album’s opener “Theme From ‘New York, New York’,” its blunt title serving as a helpful reminder of what exactly we’re listening to. The original’s melody is all but stripped from Cat Power’s, the jubilant mood replaced by a lull of loud drum kits and meandering strums while Chan half-heartedly details her flight to the Big Apple. Some could sense it as a message of reluctance to fully enjoy the prospect of fleeing to the city in a post-9/11 America, but that’s a stretch. It’s simply boring, mercifully short at just less than two minutes, spewing over into Chan’s retelling of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin Man” (here: “Ramblin’ (Wo)man”).
Here, like in Bob Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” Chan turns the original track outward, finding her footing in great, theatrical strides. With “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” Williams’ original country twang is replaced with a smoky cabaret haze, Chan’s low, soulful voice pushed town a tunnel, echoing against the wails of guitars. “I Believe in You” is turned from simple acoustics into a ‘70s grungy rock, Chan’s confidence exuding in a hardened edge against the effectively repetitive chords. Jukebox
makes a case that “Lost Someone” works best as a lo-fi country ballad, Chan heart wrenching under the overpowering bass and drum kit. When Chan climaxes in a fit of emotion in the song’s final moments, it's as small and effective moment as any on the album, and I simply wish Chan had taken to treating each song with such subtle sentiment. It’s displayed in the appropriate nonchalance of Lee Clayton’s “Silver Stallion,” broken down from The Highwaymen’s piano-drenched, electric guitar wielding original into a beautiful, simple acoustic rendition. Chan’s unwavering performance here speaks multitudes of what she interprets the song to be, effectively filling the space between lines without nary a self-acknowledging nudge.
This sort of arresting performance doesn’t cross over into ever track, dragging the beautiful poignancy of “Blue”’s piano melody down in the tinny production of her vocals, losing herself in what should have been a scene stealing moment as the album’s conclusion. “Aretha, Sing One For Me” is catchy on its own right, the sunny disposition of its country rock spiraling into its jangling chorus that Chan could have easily stood and commandeered. The song should easily boast a show stopping powerhouse of a performance from Chan, but she steps back to let the instruments gallivant and ultimately lets it lose its luster in the process. “Woman Left Lonely” simply drags in bluesy melodrama, and while Chan’s cover of Jessie Mae Hemphill’s “Lord, Help the Poor & Needy” is vastly superior of that tambourine touted original, it idly sits in the low hum of its country acoustics without growing from it, ending before it ever feels like it really begins.
It’s really not surprising then that the best track is rewarded to Chan’s own “Song to Bobby,” which is flush with warmth and color that is missing from even the best tracks that grace Jukebox
. A beautiful ballad strung with upbeat acoustic lining, the song builds slowly with a drum roll and cymbal tapping, keeping low to the ground and sprinkled with appropriate pianos. “You sang the song that I was screaming I wanted to,” Chan says early on, and “Song to Bobby” finally feels like she does (earlier represented in a leftover from Cat Power’s own Moon Pix
, the electric guitar-entangled “Metal Heart”, fitted with a striking classical piano). It only means that, as a whole, Jukebox
isn’t a misstep, but it does seem like an unnecessary lull towards an album that might build on the promise of Jukebox
’s best assets, the most important ones being of Chan’s own, warming design. With a little more power, I’m ready to give this cat all the attention it deserves.