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Before musicians could deliver their songs through mass-produced vinyl, and then 8-track tapes, and then CDs, and then MP3s, and then the cloud, and then vinyl again, songs were primarily delivered in sheet music. Radio stations had their own in-house musicians to play what songwriters sent them, and the biggest musicians sent versions all over the country in hopes of covering the market. This is where, historians guess, the notion of “covering” a song originates.

Covers have their roots in the Great American Songbook, a tradition that rarely changes. A cover can be wacky (Weezer’s “Toto”) or it can be wistful (Bob Dylan’s Triplicate) or it can be used to bolster someone’s reputation (Johnny Cash’s American series). But what Cat Power does with covers is unlike anyone else. Her third album of covers, appropriately titled Covers, brings vitality to one of music’s oldest traditions.

Cat Power, otherwise known as Chan Marshall, uses her cover albums to deconstruct the idea of what a Great American Songbook means. Who’s to say that Frank Ocean shouldn’t be seen in the same league as Hoagy Carmichael? That spirit drives her cover of “Bad Religion,” one of Ocean’s most startling songs off of Channel Orange. A song full of panicked confusion, where Ocean confesses his sexuality to a taxi driver, takes on a blues-y sense of propulsion and urgency in Cat Power’s telling.

Power’s music, from Moon Pix to The Greatest, has often relied on a stripped-down sound, letting the intensity of her words and repetition carry the song. This technique works to great effect on Covers, like on her surprising cover of Dead Man Bones’ “Pa Pa Power.” A trademark of late-aughts hipsterism featuring Ryan Gosling, the original “Pa Pa Power” featured a haunting children’s choir, which she cuts. The result takes on a new urgency in an age of protest, asking what power is, exactly, and who gets it in the first place. Elsewhere, she adds a DIY urgency to Lana Del Ray’s “White Mustang” and tightens Iggy Pop’s “The Endless Sea” into a song that feels cozy: “Oh, baby, what a place to be,” she says, “in the service of the bourgeoisie,” and suddenly a listener is transported to a jazz bar where it’s just them and Cat Power working the room.

Cat Power lets the songs change her style too, like on her romantic, woozy take on The Pogues “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” But perhaps her most remarkable cover is one where the changes aren’t too dramatic at all: “These Days” by Nico. Cat Power’s version, which slows things down and loses the strings, feels just as charged with memory and regret as the original. Covers shows how music can change and shift throughout the years, but sometimes that just means a new understanding is right around the corner. —David Meir Grossman


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Also by Blake Smith

  • Are Conservatives the New Queers?

    The medical fear and moral judgment that once surrounded HIV have reemerged in the contemptuous debate over how to manage COVID

  • The Open Society and Its Prophets

    Henri Bergson’s original heuristic of open and closed societies emphasizes that liberalism is a religion born out of moments of mystical perception and faith

  • Roland Barthes and the Value of Closets

    The French literary theorist urges us to resist being enlisted in the army of the good in favor of preserving our sanity and spending quality time with friends

  • Beauty and the Blob

    A new biography of the art critic Dave Hickey argues that his fierce defense of aesthetic autonomy is more important, and more difficult, than ever before

  • Frantz Fanon and the American Racial Eros

    Forty years after the death of Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote the controversial preface to Fanon’s ‘Black Skin, White Masks,’ white guilt is still tied to masochism

Original photo: Wikipedia
Original photo: Wikipedia
Where Are the Yeshivish Writers?

Yeshivish literature has long been overlooked and oversimplified, but it’s a genre worthy of meaningful consideration

“Isn’t it true that only men speak Yeshivish?” my linguistics professor at Columbia University asked me on the first day of class. The question wasn’t out of place. Ever since Yeshivish earned proper-noun status, both those inside and outside the Orthodox Jewish community have stereotyped it as a male form of communication. But like thousands of Orthodox women, I attended all-girls Bais Yaakov schools in which Yeshivish was essentially the main language. I recognize that mention of the language evokes an image of young men in white shirts and black pants filling a study hall with the tumultuous hum of Torah learning, but I consider myself (and many other women) an active participant in Yeshivish culture. The Yeshivish language takes its name from the Hebrew word “yeshiva,” denoting an academy where men debate Jewish law with an English infused with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The Yeshivish language of the study hall has its own jargon and textual references. Its grammar and vocabulary have been recorded and the dialect is recognized as a peculiar phenomenon of the Orthodox Jewish world. But no one has yet paid homage to the Yeshivish language of the home, the supermarket, the world of sleep-away camp, matchmaking, and the myriad other areas of Jewish life. It is this form of Yeshivish that transforms the language from verbiage to the stuff from which culture is made. “My whole family speaks Yeshivish,” I answered my professor. “When I sit at the Shabbos table, I can understand the men when they deliver a dvar Torah. Everyone is able to engage in the conversation.” Yeshivish women understand their male counterparts, even when the latter speaks about technical Torah subjects....

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