It is perversely comforting to me, knowing that one of the finest female songwriters of her generation is so plagued by insecurity and the brutality of performance that she must play tricks with her own inertia, feign indolence, and back into original creation by re-creating other people's work. Cat Power's Covers Album is empirical evidence of that internal struggle. It is a collection of the songs Marshall performs live when her own material is too close, too existent, or too embarrassing to share. The tracks are fragments of a security blanket -- beautiful, fragile, and deeply personal songs by other artists that Marshall has suckled, nuzzled, and gummed beyond recognition. She peels away years of beery bravado from the Rolling Stones' anthem "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by passing over the sex-me-up chorus, and draping a wistful guitar and weary contralto around the heart of the song. "I'm riding around the globe/ And I'm doing this/ Or signing that/ And I'm trying/ I'm trying ...," sings Marshall, her velvety voice crumbling into nothingness. It's as if you've never heard the words before.
Less startling but no less engrossing are her austere treatments of Bob Dylan's "Paths of Victory," the traditionals "Salty Dog" and "Kingsport Town," Velvet Underground's "I Found a Reason," Moby Grape's "Naked If I Want To," and her own reworked tune, "In This Hole." Of the two songs here written by Greenwich Village folkster Michael Hurley, "The Devil's Daughter" stands out, sounding as if it were plucked from the lips of a doomed woman on the muddy banks of an Appalachian river. "Red Apples," a song that sounded custom-fit for Marshall when it originally appeared on Smog's Red Apples Fall album, is fully realized here with a somber, restrained piano and Marshall's breathy fractures. Even when Marshall stays close to the original version, as with Phil Phillip's "Sea of Love," her crackling emotive brevity still imbues the number with new frost. And "Wild Is the Wind" never sounded so disastrously seductive, even in the hands of its formidable originator, Nina Simone.
At times, The Covers Album sounds like a quiet gathering of modern folk ballads; unlike the current crop of neo-folk musicians, however, Marshall isn't paying tribute to or drawing inspiration from a scene that is not her own. She is traveling through these songs, and exploring her own tragic spark within the context of another songwriter's divinity. Cat Power performs on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at the Great American Music Hall with Her Space Holiday opening at 7 and 10:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.50-14; call 885-0750.
For purists, the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band's interactive interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite -- in which audience members are invited to don tutus and bumble through the ballet with trained dancers -- is nothing short of sacrilege. Well, purists beware: You haven't seen anything yet. This is Dance-Along Nutcracker 2000: Into Outer Space, an adaptation of the classic story that merges toy soldiers and malevolent rats with B-rate science-fiction flicks and go-go boots. We're talking dance numbers on the moon with computers made of cardboard boxes and Christmas tree lights; aliens wearing fur bikinis and feathery masks; rockets fueled by holiday sparklers; and the music of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and Star Wars augmenting more traditional fare like the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies." If that weren't ridiculous enough, one can expect Kate Botello as Judy Garland leading a rousing rendition of "I'm Going Home" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, gravity-defying antics set to Ride of the Valkyries by Cheer San Francisco, a costumed version of Bolero, and a live theremin performance by Wes Asakawa. Artistic Director Jadine Louie excuses her (mis)handling of this classic Christmastime fantasy by saying, "[Space] is the fantasy land of our time. If E.T. Hoffman had lived a hundred years later, he would have set The Nutcracker in space." But she doesn't really need an excuse: This is San Francisco, and Dance-Along is one of those quirky traditions that remind us of that. Dance-Along Nutcracker 2000 will be held on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. and on Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2:30 p.m. at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission). Tickets are $12-35; call 255-1355.