The one criticism that might be accurately leveled at Chan Marshall’s second album of covers (after 2000’s Covers Record) is that it’s just a bit too well put together; the arrangements are coy and crisp, the productions are by measures spare and lush in a way that makes contextual sense, and the song choices, from classics like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” and Sinatra’s “New York, New York” to also-rans drawn mostly from country and soul, are all pitched perfectly down the center of Marshall’s vocal strike zone, allowing her to strut through these brief versions in full consciousness of command. There’s little sense of the strain and struggle that are at the heart of the songs’ general concern with longing and loss, which makes the collection seem a little too Starbucks-ready for uncomplicated appreciation. Nic Harcourt will likely play the ever-loving crap out of this record, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on your perspective.
All that’s a trifle unfair, however, given that Marshall has spent so much of her career taking herself to uncomfortable destinations both on record and stage. She’s had a famously difficult career as a live act, and as recently as four years ago was prone to performances/meltdowns sporting fistfuls of aborted favorites punctuated by the catcalls of distinctly teased, combative audiences. In a sense, it’s challenging and novel for her to present herself as such a coherent whole. And let’s be honest: Marshall’s sultry pipes were put on this earth to interpret songs of this caliber; it’s a rare joy to hear these husky, soulful takes, especially since she’s having such an audibly great time squaring off against titans like Mitchell, Sinatra, and Bob Dylan. About Dylan: Marshall obviously carries a heavy torch for the man, which “Song to Bobby,” this album’s sole original (aside from a hard-hitting version of Marshall’s own “Metal Heart,” from 1998’s Moon Pix) addresses, acknowledging his influence in a respectfully playful way that’s notably lacking in anxiousness and interpolates several of his trademark tics.
The emotional clarity and warmth extant in the new track speaks more broadly to the seeming personal satisfaction she’s found since tacking toward a new classicism on 2006’s Stax soul tribute record The Greatest, with which this record has a lot of good things in common. Maybe that interpretation of causality ought to be reversed: Since that album’s release she’s formed a new band, the Dirty Delta Blues, who contribute a lot of the worn-in comfort to be found here, and publicly kicked the bottle. In any case, when Marshall played in concert in Williamsburg last summer, running through these tracks with her newfound compatriots before a crowd of thousands, she sounded like a woman unleashed—prowling the stage with a verve and passion that nearly obliterated memories of her traditional on-stage antics. Frankly, it’s churlish to wish for any return of her old-style angst, especially since this album’s pleasures stand as something warmly new from a major talent.