Sunday, May 28, 2006

Cat Power

The Greatest
This is a record that was logical for Chan Marshall to make, given where she came from and where she’s been since she left. An all-star Memphis backing band provides an opportunity for Chan to draw on the influences of her southern upbringing and complement her breathy twang with something other than the claustrophobic two-pieces of her earlier work, or the full but rock-oriented sound of her most recent albums. The Greatest gives us a new twist on the Cat Power experience, unearthing a pregnant possibility and preventing a lifetime of “what if”s.

The outcome is pretty positive. Hearing Chan’s vocals bounce along a shuffle-beat of brushed drums, noodly keyboards, and emphatic saxophonics is a surprising diversion from the HEAVY sounds of much of her previous work. “Living Proof”, “Could We”, “Empty Shell,” and the second half of “Lived in Bars” are good examples, making much of the first half of the album a veritable romp in the hay.

But the power and raw emotion that makes Cat Power so unforgettable is missing in those really Memphis-y tracks; Chan sounds like she’s along for the ride, letting her hair blow in the wind and enjoying the scenery for a change. The effect, though not unpleasant, is a bit gauzy and soft-focus compared to the dagger-like impact of “Maybe Not” from You Are Free or “Great Expectations” from Myra Lee. Vague or vapid lyrics are not to blame; nearly every track delivers a poignant message of heartache, pain, suffering, unrequited love, or all of the above, when the lyrics are taken separately from the music.

Ultimately, though, it’s the title track, which opens the album, that resonates the most with me--because the music delivers the message. A borderline maudlin string section underscores Chan’s lamenting vocals: “Once I wanted to be the greatest; no wind or waterfall could stall me. And then came the rush of the flood; stars of night turned deep to dust.” In this track, and others like “The Moon,” where the backing band steps back a bit, Chan steps up and emotes like no other. There are moments in those tracks and a few others where her hoarse but delicate warble evokes the shudder of the summer’s final cicada, or the worried flicker of a forlorn firefly.

News of Chan’s tour cancellation struck me (and probably a lot of people) quite hard. With the mysterious “health reasons” as the only official explanation, coupled with the lyrical messages of several albums and memories of her fragile live persona, I feared that The Greatest would also be The Last, especially as I struggled with the tension between the more somber tracks like the title track or “Hate” and the more rollicking numbers in which Chan seemed to have joined the party that everyone was throwing for her. I’m relieved to hear that her tour is back on, not because I’ll be seeing her in concert from my distant locale, but because I hear that she appears to be having fun. Here’s hoping that Chan can continue to spend only as much time as she needs to in the darker spaces where some of her best music comes from, always eventually emerging with a post-cathartic glow and an ability to get back as much as she gives.
(Matador) (Jim Ebenhoh)