Artist: Cat Power Release Date: February 2003
Label: Matador Records Running time: 47 min 33 sec
1. I Don't Blame You (Marshall) - 3:05
2. Free (Marshall) - 3:34
3. Good Woman (Marshall) - 3:58
4. Speak for Me (Marshall) - 3:04
5. Werewolf (Michael Hurley) - 4:08
6. Fool (Marshall) - 3:49
7. He War (Marshall) - 3:31
8. Shaking Paper (Marshall) - 4:36
9. Babydoll (Marshall) - 2:56
10. Maybe Not (Marshall) - 4:19
11. Names (Marshall) - 4:50
12. Half of You (Marshall) - 2:42
13. Keep on Runnin' (Crawlin' Black Spider) (John Lee Hooker) - 3:51
14. Evolution (Marshall) - 4:44
Warren Ellis - Violin
Adam Kasper - Engineer, Mixing
Rick Fisher - Mastering
Maggie and Emma - Vocals
Chan Marshall - Piano, Guitar, Vocals
“You are Free” is Cat Power’s first original material in five years. The last, Moon Pix, showed up in 1997, topping off a major surge in the number of female voices in college/indie rock. The first part of the decade had been awash in guy-heavy slots of grunge, electronic or alt-country. Chan Marshall’s repertoire, however, distinguished itself from these other outfits insofar as she, a) retained a kind of singular, consistency in the face of her being propelled to success, b) turned her notoriety towards securing total creative control, and, c) maintained an unapologetically-skewed vision of her emotional surroundings. It’s a minor miracle that music this giddily weepy turns out at all. And that aspect does tends to wrongly rub the more jaded listeners: one scribe for Exclaim! magazine wondered how such an off-kilter, non-harmonized busker could not be homeless, let alone a star. All this is half-true. Ms. Marshall pretty clearly states in almost every interview that she's ever done that she loathes being in the public eye, because she’s just making it all up as she goes along. Strangely, it is precisely the utter absence of any pretence to clarity, confidence or rock-star professionalism that sends so many critics into fits of eye-rolling annoyance. And yes, granted if there was a novelistic equivalent of Marshall’s recurring self-image, it would likely be less Miss Lonelyhearts and more Tess than many modern listeners have patience for (just listen to the maniacal Myra Lee). But it seems to work for someone, given the ascendance of the record since its release six weeks ago (Feb. 17, US).
We can skim the recap of the Marshall’s childhood and career: the endlessly-repeated bit about the Caterpillar Tractor trucker’s hat that gave the band their name, the old blues tunes listened to in her skittish late 80s Atlanta childhood, the nastiness, broken home and runaway to Manhattan in misery, running with the art school, college rock crowd ca. 1993. Life goes badly for a million young women like this, now Chan gets a two page spread to her self in the New York Times magazine this past Sunday. But none of that really illustrates the music and explication for this sort of emotively primal stuff eludes. You can bend the words all kinds of ways tackling songs like these, and you’re still nowhere nearer to clarifying or evoking them. If you want to get an idea of the ebulliently heart-stricken folk-rock Cat Power has mastered, “Good Woman” would I think stand up to most anything they’ve recorded. This track alone gives you an indication of the musical pull this 30-year old woman has now: Dave Grohl lightly drums, Eddie Vedder contributes a subdued chorus, Warren Ellis offers a plaintive fiddle. “I don’t want to be a bad woman / and I can’t stand to see you be a bad man … this why I am lying / when I say I don’t love you no more.” Sounds simple enough, all voice crackles and echoes in. Delta blues + Patti Smith + The Langley Schools Music Project = most eerily pretty break-up song you’ll stumble on for a good while.
The rest of the record is a collection of snapshots. “I Don’t Blame You”, the opener, seems to be a solo piano, interstellar mediation on fleeting fame and fake familiarity (actually suspect Marshall’s thinking of Bill Callahan here, only because a line from one of here songs, to him, when they were together is dropped in the middle) : “just because they knew your name / doesn’t mean they know from where you came.” Next track is stronger, right down to the squeak of the guitar strings, the atonal chorus, piped-in Hammond organ, “Don’t fall in love with an autograph / just fall in love when you sing your song” being as decent a summary of Marshall’s compulsion toward obscurity as exists on record. Then we get “Speak for Me,” which is where you really hear the influence of engineer Adam Kasper (Mudhoney, Nirvana, Queens of the Stone Age, Weezer) – as it tends to follow a stricter rock-out, guitar-powered push. That, however, is in pretty powerful contrast her cover of Michael Hurley’s “Werewolf”. Hurley was a Greenwich Village folkie back in the late 60s (this was off his first LP) but Marshall’s sultry intonation transforms it into finely-tuned homicidal melancholia: “ how I loved the man, as I teared off his clothes / crying nobody knows my pain / when I see it’s risen, that full moon, again.” It’s bloody gorgeous. And the next twangy number, “Fool” is just as haunting, “the war we have won, we’re winning again / within ourselves and within our friends,” slithers out along with a strummed guitar and doubled-up vocals, the quivering timber of Marshall’s chorus sewing up it perfectly, “it’s not that bad, it’s not that it’s death / it’s just it’s on the tip of your tongue, and you’re so silent.” “He War” is a defiant anti-march that ought to be required rocking, though it’s likely been pulled from many a commercial radio list until the end of the hostilities; as should “Shaking Paper” and its ambivalence towards diplomacy, “people emphasize the way of the world / and demons despise the sound of shaking paper.” These tracks are a little more snappy, which works to counter the myopic, Southern drawl of her more comfortable, at-home solo work on songs like “Babydoll” where the sound is so intimate and close as to be uncomfortable.
Which brings us to the centerpiece of the record. The ambivalence mentioned above resurfaces here, not about war now, but about everything. The title of the record comes from this track, and the fact the song’s called “Maybe Not,” is the big pointer that Marshall is keen to say something here. The words and looks don’t really matter, we’re reminded, nor the things or ways or means: “you’ve got to choose, a wish or command / if the turn of the tide is weathering thee / remember one thing, a dream you can see.” The song is done completely bare: sparse piano, exhaustedly hopeful elocution, slow meandering harmonization. What distinguishes it though, of course, as all Marshall’s work, is that she has herself fully convinced and committed to winning the saddest song in the world contest in which she unconsciously competes; and this four-minute knock-off is her doing her spiritually-uplifting best at being a sonic transcendental tragedian. Laurels for her.
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