Swinging Cat Power Blues
By Sascha Freudenheim

21 February 2006

The Greatest, the new album by the musician who goes by the band name Cat Power is worth a listen and a purchase. To record her new album, singer-songwriter Chan Marshall went to Memphis and put together the whole album using the kind of absolutely serious but low-key musical talent that most contemporary rock musicians only wish they could emulate – people who know how to coax love, and not just sound, from their instruments; people who are famous for being musicians, not for being rock stars. The result is an album of songs that pull from the wide history of rock, blues, soul, and southern swing.

The biggest factor in the strength of Cat Power’s sound is certainly Chan Marshall’s voice. When I first heard Cat Power – on “American Flag,” the first track to Moon Pix (1998) – it was instantaneously arresting, a soft and sweet vocal declaration that floated out over what initially seemed a whining, Hendrix-style guitar chord and an oddly-electronic back beat. I was hooked. Where Moon Pix sounds like an indie-punk album befitting its late-90s origins, 2003’s You Are Free changed course slightly, pulling Chan into a more staccato, electric direction: sharp beats and precision playing, which made a good album but one that seems to me always to be searching for its soul.

The Greatest, however, has soul to spare. Marshall’s voice is there, as clear as ever; it reminds me of rough silk, smooth but with true texture. As appealing is the way the album builds, ebbs and flows, beginning with the title song, dominated by a clear piano accompaniment with other instruments filling in the background. “Living Proof,” the second song, starts with a stronger lead – again, crystal clear piano, but there’s more behind it, and its slightly up-tempo. By the fourth song, “Could We,” Marshall is starting out in full swing – with the soft blow of horns behind her emphasizing the break points between verses, this is where it becomes clear just how much this musical environment suits Marshall’s voice and musical style. That ebb-and-flow continues, and the album closes with two songs that could only be Chan Marshall creations, “Love & Communication,” with a rough-rock sound the calls to mind the album Moon Pix, and then the eerie and unnamed “bonus track” 13, that makes the listener quiet down, because you almost have to stretch to hear.

In Memphis, Marshall created an album that lives at the 2006 intersection of Dusty Springfield’s magnificent Dusty in Memphis (1969) and just about anything by The Animals circa 1964, with Al Green and others tossed in, too. But whichever musicians one wants to describe as influences – the list is surely longer than these three – The Greatest feels entirely new and fresh. It is purely a Chan Marshall creation, and pure joy for the ears.

Copyright 2006, by Sascha Freudenheim. No re-publication without permission, but you may link to this page as desired. You are visiting sascha.com.