Cat Power – [Album]

Tuesday, 04 September 2012

Since her last full-length of original material in 2006, the woman born Charlyn Marshall has broken off a relationship with Giovanni Ribisi and cut off enough of her hair to get Robin Williams through chemotherapy for back cancer. The actor (Ribisi, not Williams) has since moved on, having married the despicably scrawny and grammatically pretentious Agyness Deyn as a poor substitute for this one-of-a-kind amazing basketcase. The hair, meanwhile, will presumably continue to grow. Clearly, Marshall was of a mind to shed some deadweight. Fortunately, that mind has recently been sound enough to allow for the completion and release of, Sun, her latest offering under the name Cat Power.

The pitfalls of Marshall’s own psyche and how she has become comfortable with fame and public adoration have been well-documented in the past, enough so that media fixation on the minutiae of rash fashion decisions and a heartache that can only come off well-advised don’t seem as slight as they would in a different context. As a performer whose live shows often seemed to be actively working against the benefit of her career, Cat Power became synonymous with the type of volatile delicacy that marked so much of the late 1990’s rise of powerful, emboldened women who nonetheless seemed like they could barely keep it together when alone in a room. This double standard of perception came off the sweat and coffee stained ethos of that decade and all but had backlash built in as a failsafe.

Her early work, particularly songs like “Rockets” and “Nude as the News,” sounds downright haunted; the troubled musings of a former waitress in the sway of the bottle with so much more to offer the world beyond the walk from the kitchen to the bus hutch. The stakes soared still higher with Moon Pix, which still stands as the most definitively unique of her albums. Marshall’s material often played as though she treated songwriting like therapy; each line emerging from the couch within listeners’ speakers. With 2000’s The Covers Record, she took a new approach, even re-purposing one of her strongest tracks, “In This Hole,” into a grim piano dirge that shoveled dirt onto the insecurity of her past albums.

This re-calibrated artistic compass gave way to You Are Free, a collection of gorgeous material by a standard far less idiosyncratic than the one she had carved out to date and an album that still makes me smile just thinking about how floored I was by it back in the beginning of 2003 (within weeks of its release, I stumbled drunkenly into a party and upon finding a copy of the album on a nightstand offered/threatened to make out with whoever could lay claim to ownership, male or female alike). Marshall had settled into her own brand of confidence and by her next album she shot for the moon and perhaps came up a little short.

The Greatest was released in early 2006 and while hindsight has revealed that my initial ears did not pay the album the notice it was due, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Marshall had made a sharp turn into the realm of adult contemporary at the time. On paper, I loved the idea of her songs juxtaposed against seasoned studio aces of the Muscle-Shoals variety, similar submergence into strange waters had worked gloriously in the past for musicians no less detached from normalcy than Cat Power, as in the case of Ween’s 12 Golden Country Greats, which remains the true highlight of their own staggeringly oddball career. In reality though, my attention was quickly stolen away by Neko Case’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood only a month and a half later, which elicited the type of excitement in me that You Are Free had inspired a few years earlier.

My tastes don’t tend to run as fickle as that, but for the life of me I couldn’t get behind Marshall’s new trajectory; even as her performing persona finally caught up with the brash, daring woman who had been recording for over a decade by this point. Her descent into glorified karaoke mode on yet another album of covers gave me great pause regarding the woman I had defended against cries of derision from my less forgiving and indulgent friends for so long.

Then I heard “Ruin,” an attack on Ugly Americanism that hits as many pop sweet spots as Marshall has passport stamps in the empathetic travelogue lyrics and the first single from what would be Cat Power’s ninth full-length. The melody is hung on a simple piano figure that’s as memorably driving and effectively minimalist as “The Way We Get By” by Spoon. Marshall steps into the fashionista role she’s flirted with at the behest of Karl Lagerfeld and recounts jet-setting in the face of poverty while our own culture struggles for new things to be discontented with. The song instantly had me cemented to the repeat button and just like that I was as shamelessly grateful to be a Cat Power fan as I was the first time I heard “Good Woman” live on a BBC radio show hosted by some presumably snaggletoothed imbecile who apparently had done absolute zilch in the way of research.

To these ears, Marshall sounds as rejuvenated in her delivery as I am in my reception. Being only a listener, and not an actual psychotherapist, I couldn’t say whether this has to do with the personal complications (of the nervous breakdown and tour cancellation variety) that arose in Marshall’s life after the success of The Greatest which kept her from rejoicing in any kind of victory lap. Sadly, this is a woman who seems like she may just revel in her own misery. As a result however, Cat Power sounds beholden to no one on Sun; if The Greatest found her out of the depth of her proficiency, holed up in the studio with the kind of men who practically live there, then Sun is a byproduct of her need to reassert her musical control on nobody else’s terms. She sums it up well on this album’s “Human Being,” tossing off the couplet “Can’t you see you got your hand on the advantages?/You could stand to manage your damages” with a reassuring sensuality that is downright cocksure. Her newly unearthed sound (only the songs “Always On My Own” and “Manhattan” fall into a similar line with much of her past work) exists solely in the constraints of 2012, with flourishes like auto-tune which would sink a lesser artist, but the soul behind it all is the same creative spirit that makes the leap to this record from the 1960’s stylings of her last original outing less daunting that it would first appear. Even if her intentions are more in line with Lil’ Wayne than Bon Iver, Marshall remains more “Sulky Girl” than “Party Girl," the balance flatters the hell out of her and suggests a kinship with the dance floor barn-burners of tomorrow like New York’s Hesta Prynn, a woman who would seem a natural fit to open for Cat Power on subsequent dates in support of Sun.

So it goes in this Year of the Cat, granting no quarter and certainly no apology. This is a collection of ten songs that fit Marshall like a white glove, and one song (“Real Life”) that pursues her newfound muse a bit too far into bad Portishead b-side territory. Call it a comeback, if you like. Call it evolution, as Cat Power herself did on the final track of You Are Free. There is a leitmotif on this album of false endings which suggests that each Cat Power record is a fake-out of sorts; keeping her fan base guessing and always coming up short on what her next intentions may ever be. This idea is first established with the screeching bird sample (which admittedly reminds me a little distractingly of the credits to The Colbert Report) that abruptly punctuates opener “Cherokee” at a point where Marshall lets the music fall aside and her voice carry the moment. That voice, by the way, is still the lynchpin of Cat Power’s strength and the quality that most distinguishes her often bizarre approach to songwriting. I digress, however, as a few notes from her throat will say more than I ever could and will likely convince you to promptly take up smoking. This notion of false endings reappears like a dream inside of a dream on the anthemically upbeat “Nothin’ But Time,” during which she enlists Iggy Pop for his signature growled and crooned gravitas, a collaboration that makes an interesting statement about identity and the use of self in a creative forum as James Osterberg is Iggy Pop, while Chan Marshall simply records as Cat Power. The song winds down after an exhilarating bout of esteem building exhortation like Cat Power and Iggy Pop were a pair of the world’s coolest guidance counselors. Amidst Pop’s reassurances that, as Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski would put it, nothing is fucked, the song comes back precisely as it seems to fade out for an extended musical outro that pushes the track right up against eleven minutes. This would still serve as a natural ending to the album, long-winded and cathartic, but instead Sun closes on “Peace and Love.” The song is a kick in the ass to the whole album that came before, equal parts blues-punk riffery (to outmatch even the Black Keys reminiscent “Silent Machine”) and hip-shakin’ comehither-ness (to out-slink the Dusty Springfield in the club rampage of “3,6,9”), which Cat Power executes to a tee, even pulling off what could be considered rapping (not exactly the go-to forte of your average forty year old white woman signed to Matador) without sounding the least bit contrived or embarrassing.

Much has been made about Sun sounding like Chan Marshall at her happiest. I really don’t hear or agree with that assessment, but I do think that the album sounds like a woman calling the shots to her own demons. I find her to be a genuinely intriguing personality and she seems a gentle spirit. I wish Marshall the contentment she deserves and I’d even like to hear music in the future that reflects those emotions. At this point, I’m just not sure I see it happening. Sometimes the low is the high and, even more frequently, that has got to be enough. The thing about the sun is that, sure as it rises, it also has to set.


Cat Power – “Sun” – Cherokee [mp3]
Cat Power – “Sun (Nicolas Jarr Mix)”– [mp3]


Sun is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


Cat Power – [Album]

Friday, 15 February 2008


So I heard that that Mark Ronson guy met that Radiohead guy once out on the London-town with some other guys. Story goes, Mark Ronson introduces himself and the Radiohead guy spits—after some memory-jogging head-scratching, “Oh ya, you’re that guy who made our song [“Just”] into a dance song.”


That’s got to hurt.

Covers wouldn’t bother me so much if most of them weren’t like Mark Ronson’s. It wouldn’t be so irritating if the production-slick-style slapped on didn’t sound like a Happy Meal for advertising agencies. I bet Radiohead’s hard-earned creative merit thanked Ronson when “Just” appeared in crippled fragments all over the commercial breaks on Monday Night Football.

With Ronson in mind, I hiss at the idea of Cat Power doing another album of covers, but—too bad everything Cat Power does is golden. Remember when she went all nuts and had to check into a psych ward for, like, ever? Probably not. It’s because Chan Marshall is a classy lady. She’s this generation’s soul star that mannerly keeps her personal battles out of the tabloids, like the Amy Winehouse you’re allowed to cheer for.

Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell—Marshall leaps to fill some big shoes by paying tribute to some of the business’ best. Like her risky, candlelit-café cover of “Satisfaction” on The Covers Record, she takes some of the most influential tracks of all time and completely turns them on their head by completely stripping them down. “Satisfaction” is propelled by that giant guitar lick, and Cat Power utterly undresses it by keeping it quiet. Like this album’s “Satisfaction,” Jukebox opens with Ebb and Kander’s “New York.” No horns, no Old Blue Eyes—it’s laid back and mellow, without the bright-lights, big-city glitterness. It’s confusing. On one hand, it can sound like she strips the original of all its operating parts—this turns into a good thing. If you had no idea of the track details, it might take you a minute to figure out what’s going on because her wistful, atmospheric, bare-bones approach makes lullabies that are simply mesmerizing.

With her backing band manned with indie heroes like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer and Chavez’s Matt Sweeney, Jukebox sounds raw, but warm, poignant, but natural. What could sound like a bad night of cheap promo-shots and spontaneous karaoke actually sounds organic and peaceful. Her playlist has potential disaster written all over it. Dylan’s “I Believe in You” could easily sound like a two-bit rip, but with its rebellious but reverent electric guitar, it flows beautifully. With Marshall’s hesitant refrains and stretched pronunciations, her own “Song To Bobby” sounds more like a Dylan song than her actual Dylan cover. Her version of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is the perfect album conclusion with its velvety keyboard work that ripples with soothing sonic delight. Marshall’s signature raspy vocals sound fuller now more than ever. Mixed to perfection, these rich instrumentals don’t sink below nor float above, but flawlessly match the reflective longing in her voice.

The beauty of Jukebox is that it is not only testament to these massively influential musical figures and the songs that reveal their craft, but it also reveals Marshall’s blossoming artistic growth. Yes, this play list features some of the best, like, ever. But only an artist like Chan Marshall could make her mark on each and ever one of them and do the originals justice at the same time.

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