Cat Power, the nom de disque of singer/guitarist Chan Marshall and her occasional backing musicians (guitarist Tim Foljahn of Two-Dollar Guitar and Mosquito and drummer Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth), is a thoroughly intriguing bundle of contradictions. Cat Power overwhelms by underwhelming — Marshall’s voice rarely rises above a straining, plaintive whisper, but the tension and emotion of a tortured soul is there, sure as if she was belting ’em out at the top of her lungs. Her songwriting is sublime — ’60s folk as filtered through punk rock, Delta blues, Sun Records country and the haunting, gothic charm of Marshall’s southern roots, a culture that understands, if not flat-out aspires to, the power of mystery and anticipation over raw power and angst.
The daughter of a piano playing father who moved her all over the South as a child, Marshall has more recently called Atlanta, Portland (Oregon) and NYC home. Never pausing long enough to become part of any musical scene, she has nonetheless internalized elements of each city’s musical identity, from the introspective songwriter stylings epitomized by Portland’s Elliott Smith to the indie rock of the Lower East Side to all the South has to offer an eager young mind…country, gospel, soul, rock and everything in between.
It would be easy to dismiss Marshall as part of the short-lived early ’90s anti-folk genre, except that she has probably never heard of it. Too bad, really, since Cat Power embodies everything that movement attempted to do without even trying. Marshall’s music has the quiet, understated ability to seem timeless because she simply never tries too hard. If Cat Power never plugged in, it might run the risk of oversimplification, but the contrast of electric guitars with Marshall’s subtle, haunting vocals make sure she, and it, will never fit too neatly into any one mold. Not an alt-rock diva like labelmate Liz Phair nor an old school singer-songwriter like Carole King, Marshall roams the musical landscape, picking up whatever bits and pieces attract her attention.
Dear Sir and Myra Lee, both recorded in one day not long after Marshall’s move from writing songs on her couch to playing live, sound like what they are: two musicians backing up a singer rather than the interplay of a true group. Marshall sings and plays her parts; Foljahn and Shelley do theirs. While by no means unenjoyable, the songs’ inherent simplicity does not benefit significantly from the boys’ presence. Standouts like “Ice Water” and “We All Die” (on Myra Lee) or Dear Sir‘s “Rockets” hint at the power the band might bring to the fore if all the pieces fell into place.
On What Would the Community Think, Marshall, Shelley and Foljahn come together in a much more cohesive fashion. A warmth and fullness lacking in the earlier releases is much more apparent. Marshall’s songs still resonate with subtle, repressed energy and emotion, but her power is more focused and pointed. “Nude as the News” (which was huge in France … really!), “Good Clean Fun” and “The Coat Is Always On” prove that Marshall and her band have the makings of a timeless and important sound, one they can truly call their own.
Two years later, Marshall gathered up Jim White (drums) and Mick Turner (guitars) — both from Australia’s idiosyncratic Dirty Three — into the slowly expanding Cat Power universe and fulfilled the promise shown on What Would the Community Think with the introspective and nuanced Moon Pix. While no great departure, mood-wise, from the previously mined bleaker end of the emotional scale, this exquisite album consolidated Cat Power’s so-called sadcore underpinnings, bringing them into a kind of dusty semi-focus. While the mood may be bleak, there is a palpable tension here, a pull between restrained sterility (Moon?) and abrupt snapshots of emotion (Pix?). This dichotomy is echoed in Marshall’s voice. The feathery, goosebump-intimate burr is like someone talking quietly, close to your ear. Intimate yet detached, it’s as if she were risking her vulnerable heart and simultaneously holding something back in an act of self-preservation (see the excellent “Metal Heart”). Histrionics are few and far between on Moon Pix — the quiet dread of an outback night only sporadically shredded by a wild dog’s cry — yet they do break loose on occasion. The Dylan-inspired traditional folk of “Moonshiner,” a soul-baring first-person account of a hopeless alcoholic, steps quietly until the chilling culmination of “We’re already in hell / You’re already in hell / I wish we could go to hell.”
While some of the lyrics are enigmatic, even obtuse, the haunting magnetism of Moon Pix is in the phrasings, the drawn-out ragged guitar picking, the spare shuffling percussion, between which Marshall’s breathy voice alternately emotes and then fades away. As if she were suddenly embarrassed by such apparent melodrama as “The moon is so hollow / What’s the use? / When I can see right through you / What’s the use?” (“No Sense”), she instead opts for stark indifference, even complete dissociation: “Must be the colors and the kids that keep me alive / ‘Cause the music is boring me to death” (“Colors and the Kids”). Just at those moments when the creepy soft-pedaled dread begins to wrap around your heart and squeeze, along comes something wide-eyed and breathless with awe: “Oh, come child, in a cross bones style / Oh, come child, come and rescue me / ‘Cause you have seen some unbelievable things” (“Cross Bones Style”). The album is a bittersweet gift; often as arid as the moon, occasionally as distanced as faded photographs, yet somehow as intimate as your only true friend huddled beside the loneliest sputtering campfire you’ve ever known.
Stripped down even further (voice accompanied, for the most part, by just acoustic guitar and piano), The Covers Record further demonstrates her uncanny ability to say more with less. A dozen occasionally obscure songs by artists as diverse as the Stones, Smog, Dylan, Nina Simone, Michael Hurley, the Moby Grape and Velvet Underground get minimalist treatment with a kind of casual reverence. Marshall even covers herself on a morose piano-draped version of Community‘s “In This Hole.” (Oddly, that’s one of only two songs that don’t quite work — along with a cover of Smog’s monotonous “Red Apples.” which neither augments nor subtracts from the mournful original.) As with black and white photography, the impact relies more on texture and subtle shading than primary colors; it is in this sense that her version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” subjects the song’s strutting sexual bravado to a quietly brutal post-feminist deconstruction; the fragile rebuilding of the skeletal remains reveals the wounded loneliness and weary ennui that always lay quivering at the core. Hey, who knew?
Hurley’s “Troubled Waters” is suitably doom-hushed as an Appalachian minor chord funeral waltz, and Moby Grape’s “Naked If I Want To” is even more endearingly vulnerable. She reveals the quiet, hopeful sweetness at the heart of the Velvets’ “I Found a Reason” and the smoky emotional nuance within Nina Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind.” Elsewhere, guitarist Matt Sweeney (Chavez, Zwan) provides straightforward folk picking on the traditional “Salty Dog.” The album closes with an antidote to the relentless melancholy with a pretty but uninspired “Sea of Love,” accompanied by autoharp. For those who discovered rapture and reflection in Moon Pix, this album of re-Marshalled songs is lighter fare, but no less emotionally layered or bleakly alluring.
Given the narrow musical parameters that Marshall sets for herself, it’s difficult to imagine Cat Power outdoing Moon Pix. Yet You Are Free matches, if not outright surpasses, that singular dark beauty. While never a drastic departure from familiar themes or instrumentation, the album explores a few oblique tangents with a tentative adventurousness that is more than mere gesture. With the overt production/engineering bite of Adam Kasper (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters), subtle assistance by Dave Grohl (drums, and on one song, bass) and Eddie Vedder (voice on two songs) and the sparing addition of violin and cello, the album spreads itself across a slightly wider territory than anything else in the Cat Power discography.
Relatively up-tempo (if not necessarily upbeat) tracks (“Free,” “Speak for Me,” “Shaking Paper” and “He War”) suggest, at least, that “Cross Bones Style” wasn’t an anomaly, and that Marshall isn’t averse to more conventional rock structures. “He War” is at once rhythmically diverse, pop-simple and lyrically apt (allusions to war in February 2003 were timely, even if largely coincidental). But, this is still Cat Power, and the significant songwriting evolution generally occurs in the quieter moments. On the minor-key piano opener “I Don’t Blame You,” Marshall merges her own stage fright with a kind-spirited tribute to an unnamed fellow-sufferer: “The last time I saw you / You were on stage / Your hair was wild / Your eyes were bright / And you were in a rage / You were swinging your guitar around / Cuz they wanted to hear that sound / That you didn’t wanna play / I don’t blame you.” Forgiveness begins with self, after all: peace, love, empathy indeed.
Unfortunately, three or four of the 14 tracks could have been safely omitted; it’s only this kitchen-sink approach that keeps the album from greatness. Of the strong songs, “Good Woman” is a ruined tour de force that feels like the tender but futile end to a relationship’s last-gasp, alcohol-hazy, fucked-up night. Anything standard about this country-tinged lament is negated by the harrowing backing vocals provided by Vedder and, perversely, two prepubescent girls. Two of the most effective tracks are covers — Michael Hurley’s “Werewolf” (bizarro-gothic cello-inflected folk) and John Lee Hooker’s “Crawling Black Spider” (reworked with remarkably lonesome creepiness and renamed “Keep on Runnin'”). In the end, You Are Free exemplifies Cat Power’s traditions of timelessness and the willful flouting of contemporary conventions. The freedom so often alluded to here, though poorly defined, may yet lie in such a courageous, unblinking posture toward the sorrows of our age.