Covering Bob Dylan is both an ambitious choice and an obvious one. Save for The Beatles, Dylan is probably the most covered artist of all time and yet, to attempt something like a full-album cover project seems daunting at best and foolhardy at worst. None of that really applies to Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. Not only has Marshall’s well of defiant confidence never seemed to run dry, but there exists no other contemporary artist as prepared to give Dylan the full treatment as Cat Power. Over the last three decades, Marshall has released 11 studio albums, three of which are cover records, a few even include deep-cut Dylan tracks like “Paths Of Victory” and “I Believe In You.” Her individuality as a vocalist and stylist allows Marshall to toy with these songs in a manner both reverent and exploratory, shifting tone and presentation in a way that makes songs by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Nick Cave to Liza Minnelli sound like Cat Power and Cat Power alone. Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert is clearly an extension of this career-long project but, in many ways, exists in stark contrast to what she has often done best when interpreting others’ works.
There is a kind of elliptical logic at the center of Cat Power Sings Dylan. Here Marshall is fully recreating the famed bootleg of Dylan’s titled Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert, famed for the fact that Dylan switches from an acoustic to an electric set halfway through the performance, much to the audience’s chagrin. The thing is, that concert did not in fact take place at Royal Albert Hall, but rather the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Marshall’s album-length, song-for-song recreation is a live recording of her show at Royal Albert Hall in London, in a way retconning a bootlegger’s mistaken label half a century later. This fact does nothing to detract from Marshall’s incredibly faithful album, which sticks to Dylan’s mid-set about face and presents the songs essentially unchanged in structure. This is, ultimately, what makes the record both impressive and a little underwhelming.
I often find it quite hard to listen to songs from an artist as ubiquitous and singular as Dylan without finding myself longing to listen to the man himself. Marshall works really hard here to become the exception to that rule, her arresting voice and natural charisma enough to keep the listener engaged with a nearly 90-minute record with little exception. You can easily imagine how rewarding it is to be in the room as she saunters her way through “Visions Of Joanna,” “Just Like A Woman” and “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat,” as she is set to continue to do in a very select set of cities over the next few months. From home, you begin to question such strict adherence to the famed bootleg, longing for the flare she provides in excess on last year’s Covers, which saw her approach something like Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” from an angle from which only she could have arrived. Perhaps I am nitpicking a bit because, ultimately, some of these songs arrive as the best cover versions ever put to tape. I only wish they could sit alongside something wholly original in their own right.
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