When I was younger, I believed the people who sang others’ songs were somehow lesser artists. I believed this for quite some time until, one day, I didn’t. It took me a long time to get there, but one of the things that helped me get there was getting exposed to really good cover albums and really good, transformative covers in general. I still don’t like (the vast majority of) straight-ahead covers but I no longer believe interpretive artists are somehow fundamentally less good than those that write, they’re just different.
Of course, there are some people who can do both. Chan Marshall is a good songwriter. One of the better ones of her generation perhaps. (I haven’t listened to enough of her songs to say one way or the other.) But this record reveals that she is also an incredible interpretive artist, capable of some pretty profound transformations of songs, both well known and less known.
Personally, I know a number of these but not all of them. For covers albums I always feel like I am better able to assess them when I know all the songs, and that’s definitely not true here. But the songs I do know she mostly transforms entirely, altering tempo and, obviously, arrangements, but also sometimes altering intonation, resulting in completely different interpretations of some of these lyrics. (Or, alternatively, deeper feeling, or at least slightly different feeling.)
It’s a pretty damn impressive record and that’s ignoring the cuts it took to release this when everyone was no doubt waiting for something really different.
Frankly the only reason I don’t rate it higher is because solo guitar or solo piano covers are less radical than other types of transformations, and so it’s not like these interpretations are life-changing in their originality. (But wow, does it feel like the YouTube cover craze of solo piano or guitar covers is indebted to this record.)