It’s not the first time that Chan Marshall has celebrated her influences. Eight years after “The Covers Record,” on which she redid songs reflecting the folksy blues that shaped her, “Jukebox,” showcases both Marshall’s deference to her predecessors and her ability to reinvent classics. The result is a varied album from an artist who, to the uninitiated, still sounds like she’s making music for angst-ridden drug addicts.
Take, for example, the strong, rhythmic beats of “New York” or “I Believe in You” in contrast to the crooning vocals of “Ramblin’ Woman” or “Lost Someone.” For those drawn to Marshall’s folksier side, “Silver Stallion” will satisfy, while the concluding rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” seems to drift peacefully into space, leaving the listener ethereal and dreamy. And, of course, a touch of her own shines through on “Letter to Bobby,” which appears for the first time.
Most importantly, Marshall succeeds on the essential task of any cover record: making the sound her own. Not a difficult undertaking with so unique a sound, but its effect is certainly amplified by her choice material. Hearing Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Hank Williams through Marshall’s womanly, crooning murmurs evokes entirely new sensations of hope, dismay, fear, love and disappointment. It is on the tracks closest to her own sound — Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain” and Janis Joplin’s “Woman Left Lonely” — that Marshall’s sound seems, at best, unlike her, at worst, uninspired emulation.
Still, let us not forget the other major purpose of a cover album — to exercise and explore. The sound on “Woman Left Lonely,” if not 100% Chan Marshall, certainly channels Joplin through its angry, impassioned blues. At times, Marshall seems ready to start growling — Janis would be proud. The same holds for Joni’s breathy and dreamlike “Blue,” and “Don’t Explain,” wherein Billie Holiday seems to scratch out from behind Marshall’s gruff words. The result? Her voice beautifully exhibited through a large number of roles. Variety in vocals as well as in source material and instrumental effect.
And yet the true gem of the album is her own “Letter to Bobby,” which documents the singer’s desirous fascination with the original rolling stone. Here, Marshall shines. The song follows believably from a later and lesser-known Dylan tune, and Marshall’s voice, threading the story of a singer’s search for her muse, or the woman’s search for her man, showcases the pleasing pain of yearning in an entirely believable way. Even more, the folksy combination of modern piano, guitar and vocals seems almost akin to the kind of play Dylan might himself exercise on the sounds of the Woody Guthries and Doc Watsons before him. She’s celebrating her modern musical technology, but she doesn’t overdo it.
Yet in reinventing herself, Marshall falls short. “Metal Heart” was a release on her 1998 album “Moon Pix” and is here reborn as a slow, all-encompassing ballad that starts out with Coldplay-esque piano and fails to complicate itself. She’s made it new, and different, but it’s just not the brooding anger that a song titled “Metal Heart” should evoke. There is a highlight, however — look out for a moment approximately two minutes into the song, when she sings “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” She was quoting before, and now she’s quoting herself, quoting. So very meta.