February 09, 2006

Cat Power "The Greatest"

When I heard late last year that Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) had gone to Memphis to make her seventh album with a backing band that featured former members of Booker T and the MG’s and the Hi Rhythm Section, I awaited the results with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A small part of me feared that this experiment would go awry, but once I reacquainted myself with Marshall’s previous releases, I realized that my fears were unfounded. Anyone who’s heard the covers peppered throughout her last three studio albums knows that she is able to refract any strain of American music through her own lens, while still remaining reverent to the visions of the artists she covers. Although I knew Chan’s next album would be a bit more soulful and countrified than her previous work, I highly doubted that she would use that as an excuse to perfect her Mavis Staples impersonation. Even so, if there’s any female singer in indie-rock whose voice has both the grit and the range to pull it off, it’s Chan. Besides, when you’ve got men who’ve played with Aretha Franklin and Al Green by your side, you’d have to be a dolt to completely screw things up.

The first half of The Greatest lives up to all of my expectations. You’d think that any artist who gives an album that isn’t a greatest-hits collection that kind of title (and let’s not forget the boxing-glove necklace that adorns the cover) would be suffering from Kanye-like narcissism. However, the first four lines of the title track lay this assumption to rest: “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.” This song is about the DEATH of ambition; the weepy strings and hesitant drumming only accent the resignation oozing from Chan’s voice. Although her lead vocal is husky and weathered, her background vocals repeatedly sing the title phrase in a soaring soprano register. This approach to multi-tracked vocals is employed in many of the album’s songs (“Could We,” “Empty Shell,” “The Moon”). When Chan engages in a tete-a-tete with a sprightlier version of herself, it feels like I’m listening to a battle between her ego and her id.

As sultry as Chan’s voice is, I could never imagine myself using any of her past work as a soundtrack to physical intimacy. On the other hand, “Living Proof” and “Could We” are the first songs in Chan’s repertoire in which she sounds intentionally sexy. On the former, Chan reassures a doubtful lover with some of her most direct lyrics (“You’re supposed to have the answer/You’re supposed to have living proof/Well, I am your answer/I am living”) and some shockingly bluesy singing. On the latter, Chan sings about a great date with a simplicity (“What a dream/In the grass/We kissed/Fell in love too fast”) that would ring false were it not for the gliding guitar and horn interjections that support her. “Empty Shell” is a final goodbye to a man who has left Chan for another woman. The violins in the introduction seem to announce the arrival of yet another moping country song, but Chan’s cutting lyrical inversions (“Do not hate her/For to leave her is to love her/The same as you and I”) sound more angry than sad.

If the rest of The Greatest maintained the quality of its first six songs, the album would be worthy of the comparisons it has received to Dusty in Memphis. Unfortunately, Chan begins the second half with “Where Is My Love,” the most saccharine song she has ever written. On it, the piano playing is only a couple of notes removed from “Chopsticks,” the strings sound corny when they should be classy, and the lyrics read like something a grade-school girl would write (“Horses running free/Carrying you and me”). The lyrics to “After It All,” which plead for reconciliation after a violent lovers’ quarrel, are much better. It’s a shame that they’re wasted on a one-chord plod that seems edited down from a particularly drowsy jam session. “Hate” sounds like a parody of an earlier Cat Power song. It consists of little more than Chan playing a few chords on her guitar and mumbling Kurt Cobain’s favorite phrase (“I hate myself and I want to die”) over and over again. These three songs are the biggest deviations from the template established in the album’s first half. Chan’s desire to avoid monotony is commendable, but she could’ve written some better songs to break up the pace with. Listeners shouldn’t have to choose between being bored and being irritated.

Fortunately, The Greatest ends strong with “Love and Communication.” On this song, Chan and her backing band push each other a bit. Guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges turns up the fuzz, pianist Rick Steff switches to a funky clavinet and Chan’s words start tumbling out at a faster pace. For the first and only time on the album, it sounds as if Chan’s trying to fuse the dissonance of her early material with the smoother sounds that she’s currently fascinated with. It isn’t the album’s best song, but it’s definitely the most promising...which makes me hope that The Greatest is more of a work-in-progress than a one-off experiment. I want Chan to stick with this group of musicians and delve deeper into this sound. If she does, her followup to The Greatest could find her truly earning the superlative.

--Sean Padilla

Artist Website: http://www.catpowerthegreatest.com
Label Website: http://www.matadorrecords.com

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