Artist: Cat Power Release Date: September 1998
Label: Matador Records Running time: 46m 15s
Chan Marshall - Guitar, Piano, Vocals
Mick Turner - Guitar
Jim White - Drums
Andrew Entsch - Bass
Belinda Woods - Flute
Recorded & Mixed - Sing Sing Studios, Melbourne, Australia, Jan. 1998
Arranged, Engineered & Produced by Matt Voigt & Mick Turner
All songs ©1998 Dreading Futures / Doormat Music
In 1972, the lead singer & sole original member of Cat Power was born Charlyn Marie Marshall (Marshall is her father’s name actually; she was born out of wedlock) and she kept the name until she was twelve and opted to drop a few letters. Now called Chan (pronounced Shon), she left her Atlanta home at 16, working at a pizza parlor & making up songs in the evening on a hand-me-down acoustic guitar. She moved up to New York at 20, but had little interest in starting a band until a friend from back in Georgia corralled her into the just forming Cat Power. Before long, they’d caught the ear of the Matador label, and so Marshall ended up opening for Liz Phair. Several LPs were born of the new interest in the band (Myra Lee -- on Smells Like Records, and What Would the Community Think?).
Marshall apparently got incredibly disillusioned with the indie music scene after these later encounters with major record labels and the Manhattan club scene. Touring was also a pain, on account of Chan’s frequently over-powering nervousness in live performance (which she’s described, ‘All these people are staring at you and it's like you know when you have a conversation with someone, there's eye contact, but you don't stare. You don't fucking stare at every square inch of their body.. their face, their neck, their fingers, their breasts, their butt, their knees, shoes, clothes, their face, sweat, lips’). This echoes sonorously in her lyrics; who else but a spotlit introvert could, in the midst of praise and indie adulation, still come up with a throwaway, bite-back line like, "I still have a flame gun / for the cute ones!"
Anyway, her upbringing seemed to haunt her in the streets of rackety NY, when two childhood friends died back home. This was the last straw for Marshall's constitution, and led to a severe emotional collapse. So, three albums into an already hyped, lo-fi career, she pulled up stakes & moved to a remote farmhouse in Prosperity, South Carolina with then-boyfriend Bill Callahan1 (of Smog; see Knock Knock LP’s 'Let’s Move To The Country', written during their shack up). For over a year, she just lived - cooking, taking walks, playing with her cat. Her guitar stayed locked in its case.
The arrangement didn’t take, however. Callahan went out touring again and Marshall felt compelled to 'get away' yet again, this time to Australia. Before she left though, she’d evidently been itching to get back to music again. While on vacation, the spark to record struck her suddenly. She called two friends, from the Dirty Three, and in two days recorded eleven songs, which became Moon Pix.
Does it rock? Can I put it on at a party?
Not per se, as this album falls more into the emotive, sadcore corner than most people are generally comfortable listening to in a group.2 It’s pretty damn hearts on your sleeve naked in parts, and so subsequently really not rigged for festivities of more than five people (who you know well, like the music and/or are out of their tree). Beyond that, though, it makes amazing music for driving slowly at twilight or writing long letters by hand. It’s a summery sort of record though too, despite its autumnal air of nostalgia ~ you can actually hear what sound like the rolling thunder of heat lightning in the background on several tracks (like the end of 'Say' most notably). Open your windows then, if you’re listening at night.
What’s it sound like though?
There are a few moments that reminded me a lot of Whites Off Earth Now!!, though this record is even more stripped-down. Marshall’s lyrical arc is based on evocative phrases and unadulterated emotion, to the point were live audiences frequently grow uncomfortable; think a twee-voiced Southern Gothic folk guitarist, possessed by the demeanor of Robert Johnson, and occasionally breaking into the intensity of Diamanda Galas. That might sound a little disquieting, but somehow the intimacy & open air production lends a comfort to the atmosphere (reminds me a bitt too of the first Rachel's offering, where you can hear train sounds in the background); it's as if you were sitting in on the sessions, as opposed to hearing them taped.
What I mean is this record, though recorded on vacation and with two immensely talented musicians from a well-established trio, sounds gracefully intimate, like a smattering of journal writing turned orchestrated into sound almost by chance. Not chance as in accident, mind you, Marshall’s 28 years old & has already recorded four full LPs, something quite non-random. Rather, this album sounds very much like the sincerely unpremeditated session that it is - deriving a great deal of resonance from its desert-dry twang and echo.
Say, for the sake of argument, I love the record? What else might I try?
If you like it stripped down, you would probably be quite interested in Movietone’s records, Low’s I Could Live In Hope or Lisa Germano’s Happiness (the Capitol recording, not the 4AD version). If you like the more dissonant material on this album, go back & check out the earlier Cat Power records, as well as some more recent P.J. Harvey.
1. American Flag 3: 30 ~ A bit of a stumbler to open up the album, with a backward drum sample laying the groundwork ~
2. He Turns Down 5: 30 ~ Oddly arranged, flute-framed song about keeping yourself hidden from the world ~
3. No Sense 4: 50 ~ Amazing, stumbling, half-whispered/half-mumbled, hyper-sensitive ballad - capped with a yelled What's the Use? - about personal & public performance - "all the hearts that touch your cheek / How they jump they move they embarrass" ~
4. Say 3: 24 ~ Slow waves of strummed guitar frame Marshall's voice, thunder booming distant in the background, in this rumination on learning how not to lie ~
5. Metal Heart 4: 05 ~This track has all the feel of midnight blues confessional: “It's damned if you don't and it's damned if you do / Be true 'cause they'll lock you up in a sad sad zoo” but also seems self-chiding; Marshall’s night terrors seem to have spurred her back to music and her own ambivalence. ~
6. Back of Your Head 3: 43 ~ ~
7. Moonshiner (Traditional folk ballad) 4: 50 ~ This track is specifically modelled after Bob Dylan’s cover of the song on his Gaslight Tapes, the notable (and telling) exception being the lines ‘you're already in hell / I wish we could go to hell’ which seem to be Marshall’s own impromptu insertion ~
8. You May Know Him 2: 46 ~ A bit of curve ball, though an awfully simple song, this sounds to be an honest-to-God, non-smirking Letter to God piece, sending thanks for ‘coming through’ ~
9. Colors and the Kids, 6: 35 ~The show-stopper of the record, just Marshall’s voice & simple piano melody (which could go up against any of Tori Amos similar pieces). Forlorn, world-weary and nostalgic (written at age 26, mind you), the song’s seems to be about how to take comfort in a world of strangers, while being haunted by memory. ~
10. Cross Bones Style3 4: 32 ~The most rhythmic of the tracks, the riffs from the Dirty Three gents being used to looping, ominous effect ~
11. Peking Saint 2: 24 ~ ~
1 These two must’ve been a hoot together at parties.
2 I had the previous LP, Myra Lee, on at my girlfriend’s birthday party, and at one point all conversation stopped, as the last song was playing, a particularly sparse dirge which peaks mid-song with Marshall screaming the lyrics (“Not What You Want”, if you’ve heard the album, you likely know it). Only thing is, the way it was recorded, with a single parabolic microphone, it sounds like she’s on the other side of a wall. One of my guests turned to me, and only half-joking said, “Do you hear that? We’ve got to help that poor girl?”
3 Cat Power’s only video song, bizarrely enough, was inspired by Marshall meeting two orphaned homeless boys from Cape Town, South Africa who parents had been killed in post-apartheid lawlessness.
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