The album isn’t anything revolutionary, but Songs I Can’t Live Without will please fans of Marshall Chapman, whose worldly crooning and sparse reimaginings of vintage tunes come off as a sort of auditory comfort food.
It’s as if Chapman took a stack of records off a long-neglected shelf, blew the dust off of them, pinched the crumpled corners of their sleeves, and after a quick polish found herself in possession of an array of old treasures. The real story, of course, isn’t quite so simple. Each of these genre-hopping picks holds some link to her past or present, and most are fresh despite their age. There’s no worn-out “My Funny Valentine” to be found here. In fact, odds are good that many people will discover something new in her nine track playlist.
Her weathered voice fits Leonard Cohen’s “Tower Of Song” like a glove, addressing the passage of time through his words; “Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play” are the first to grace the album. She ditches Cohen’s choir girls for a prominent bluesy guitar, and while their styles are complimentary, she distinguishes her version with enough character that it doesn’t feel like a rehash – or worse yet, a half-baked attempt to ‘modernize’ a classic. This approach, showing respect to the song, yet mindful of the need for individuality, continues into the familiar “Turn The Page.”
Chapman first recorded Bob Seger’s tune in 1978, for her second album Jaded Virgin. Never happy with her initial attempt, Songs I Can’t Live Without gives the singer a second crack at perfection.
“My vocals sounded like they were drowning in a sea of Syndrums,” she admits. “Just recently, I started singing it again. I don’t live the road life anymore, but whenever I sing this song, it takes me back to those days.” Stripping away the hip seventies vibe of yesteryear, this new version favors a heavier tone, evincing both her evolution as a musician and the changes in popular style between two differing eras.
Chapman affects a mournful disposition during her version of the Johnny Cash ballad, “I Still Miss Someone,” as the lyrics take on a personal significance. “In 2013, as my marriage was disintegrating,” she says, “I started singing [the song] to myself late at night, just to assuage myself of the grief that was making it difficult to breathe.”
She isn’t afraid to forego the jumpy rhythm of his original in favor of dreamy atmospherics. The recording quality is clear enough to allow listeners to discern every note and pick slide. All the details are there in reasonable purity; one can hear the tautness in her voice as she croons Cash’s mournful lyrics. Hats off to Chapman’s production and recording team, who do an exceptional job at a time when many musicians are pressured into distortion and soundboard trickery.
More than anything, Marshall Chapman’s selections for Songs I Can’t Live Without are covers with all the honesty and conviction of an artist who wrote them. Sure, none of the words in these old songs are her own, but as the album comes to an unabashedly heavy-handed close with the gospel traditional “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands”, it would take an inattentive listener not to grasp some perception of the woman who sang them.