Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
Cat Power and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy release sophomore covers records
Here they are, Cat Power and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, two stage-named indie-folk touchstones, each issuing a second collection of covers and, once again, emerging as royalty in the same currency. “Steamboat Willie, Bonnie Prince of all this shit, you’re like the king of a certain genre,” sang Jeffrey Lewis in 2006’s “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror,” Lewis’ brilliantly manic talking blues. And, indeed, both Chan Marshall and Will Oldham have—in their diminutive ways—declared themselves to be on top, Marshall with 2006’s The Greatest (recorded in Memphis with Al Green’s brass) and Oldham with his new take on R. Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” (that, and crowning himself with the middle name “Prince”).
The performance of this R. Kelly song says a good deal about the modern cover collection’s two primary functions: First, it’s a way of willfully interacting with musical culture as a whole, the vast network of musicians living and dead; and second, it’s a vehicle for advancing a performer’s own character. In the case of Oldham’s Ask Forgiveness, it’s the next step following his recent appearances in videos for both Kanye West’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and the 15th installment of R. Kelly’s “Trapped in the Closet” serial. Save Rick Rubin, hip-hop bona?des are rare among beardos, and it adds another dimension to a rich career that ultimately revolves around a dude with an acoustic guitar. “My life is now a myth to me,” Steamboat Bonnie admits on Phil Ochs’ “My Life.”
The performances across the 30-minute mini-album are top notch. In contrast to 2006’s The Brave and the Bold, recorded with Tortoise, they are accessible and direct, but with enough organic atmosphere to sound freshly formed. (Forgiveness’ vibes mostly ooze from minimal folk mastermind Greg Weeks of Espers, who contributes quietly throughout.) As always, Oldham’s music is slippery, spun with a world-weary gossamer that can obscure a song’s true content in favor of impenetrable tranquility. Ask Forgiveness hardly sounds like a monumental progression, but Oldham rarely operates like that anyway.
On “I’ve Seen It All,” he turns Björk and Thom Yorke’s Selmasongs duet from a Martian travelogue into a nearly Biblical lament, a tack he continues with self-doubt on Danzig’s “Am I Demon” and with soaring con?dence on “The World’s Greatest.” There’s meta-humor, too, in the two bars of yodeling on Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am,” in the lovely “Cycles” (the title track from Frank Sinatra’s 1968 foray into string-folk) and in the contrarian reclamation of proud protester Phil Ochs in the wake of another season of Dylan worship (which Oldham participated in via his Lay & Love EP last year).
To this broader thread, Cat Power—in addition to her version of “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” on the I’m Not There soundtrack—contributes a cover of Dylan’s “I Believe In You,” and her own “Song to Bobby.” The latter echoes “Song to Woody,” one of just two originals on Dylan’s self-titled debut. “Backstage pass in my hand, givin’ you my heart was my plan,” Marshall sings, sounding not a little like Patti Smith, whose inside-out interpretations of rock culture serve as Jukebox’s obvious progenitor.
Next to Oldham’s intimacy, the predominant mood on Marshall’s 12-song collection is desolation, the titular jukebox playing in the corner of an empty bar in the corner of an emptier soundstage. From the opening measures of “New York, New York,” Jim White’s drums are swathed in echo, a bed for Gregg Foreman’s lonely Rhodes. And Marshall sounds far away.
Her transformations are more fundamentally genetic than Oldham’s. On Marshall’s The Covers Record (2000), the songs sounded like creatures mutated in the perfect dark, an effect aided by the intimate solo performances. On Jukebox, some of the eyes-closed magic is traded for dim lights, but the readings are just as stunning.
Like Oldham, though, Marshall’s literal and conceptual voice can veil a performance. She tries different strategies. Most often, she picks up where the Memphis soul arrangements of The Greatest ended. Her inscrutable sultriness slips between languid grooves on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” melding huskily below Judah Bauer’s chiming guitar and above Foreman’s rumbling piano. On Janis Joplin’s “A Woman Left Lonely” and James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” the arrangements seem to prelude full-on belting, though—both times—Marshall retreats into her own breathiness instead. On George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One For Me,” a bouncing B-3 organ provokes her to a chorus, though she seems just as happy to frustrate and subvert at every turn.
Like Oldham with his rap and R&B cameos, Marshall has also stepped willfully into the public eye, appearing in ads for Chanel and Cingular, and bolstering her fundamental singer/songwriter persona in the (presumably very-well-paid) process. The former work, especially, strikes a powerful note when combined with her cat-empowered translation of The Highwaymen’s mucho macho “Silver Stallion.” “I’m gonna ?nd me a reckless—man,” Marshall sings over a newly mournful strum, leaving a pregnant pause where the ?rst syllable of “woman” might go. “Thunder and lightning in his thighs,” she adds. As a multimedia endeavor—breakdowns and ad work and all—it ultimately informs Cat Power’s music, just as Oldham’s extracurricular activities affect his: traditional tools creating traditional effects in traditional ways, but—somehow—cracked open to the light.