Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Kat's Korner: Cat Power's Greatness

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

So begins Cat Power's latest album, The Greatest. Does Chan Marshall mean it? That's always a question that lingers when people bring up Marshall or her stage persona Cat Power. How much of it is real? How much of it is a put on?

She's known for imploding, quietly, on stage. She's also known for pulling out some of the best performances on the alternative concert scene. I've seen examples of both. You walk away from either knowing you'll remember the night.

"But how much of it was real and how much of it was performance?" someone will always ask as you're heading out of the hall or club. Like it all has to be literal, completely literal. You want to ask them, "Do you think Jim Morrison really crept down the hall and said, 'Father, I want to kill you, Mother, I want to . . .'?"

Sixties women Aretha Franklin and Joni Mitchell set a standard. Of the pop-rock scene, they were among the few (women) dubbed "artists." Both women made it on their talents but a subtext was always that they were "real." Aretha's failure at Columbia and success at Atlantic was sold on the conceit that her new label put her back in the church when she moved to Atlantic. (I'm not hearing "I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You)" as a song to Jesus.) While the Mick Jaggers could strike poses, the women had to sell their "realness" and exploring interior fantasies was confused with "fake."

The women who were elevated to the rare field of "artists" in pop-rock music following the sixties pretty much had to follow the same pattern as well. Carole King took us down home and showed us her Tapestry, Carly Simon's realness was the whole promise of No Secrets . . .

By mid-seventies, Stevie Nicks had emerged as the voice of Fleetwood Mac. She gave them their only number one hit with her self-penned "Dreams" and the bulk of what's remembered from the "England's Mac starts California Dreamin'" era are her songs ("Rhiannon," "Landslide," "Dreams," "Gold Dust Woman," "Sara," "Gypsy," "Seven Wonders," "Silver Springs" . . .). But critical reception didn't cotton to Stevie. By the eighties, Kate Bush would find a similar, "Is she for real?" reaction though critics were no longer asking, "Is she talented?" the way they did with Stevie (the only Mac artist to rack up impressive solo sales). Maybe that passed for progress?

In the nineties, Tori Amos emerged. She's been half-embraced and full-on scorned by some (male) critics. (Many of whom wish she'd do 'simple love songs.') The thread that runs through Nicks, Bush, Amos and Power/Marshall's work isn't plastic. This isn't an effort on their parts to make themselves more simplistic, but an effort to explore an aspect that is very real to them.

So it must be a real drag for Chan Marshall that, while she's put out the best album of her career, the key question is still: "Is she for real?"

Call her Cat Power or Chan Marshall, applaud the theatrics or condemn them, but she's for real.
She's in a down mood on this follow up to You Are Free. One of the stand outs on the last album was "I Don't Blame You." On The Greatest, blame's everywhere. No, she's not blaming "you," she's just burying herself up to the neck in it. Even "Empty Shell" about a former lover with a new girlfriend comes off less like a kiss-off and more like a "You are so much better off without me" message. Throughout the album, she confesses and grabs the blame. While Joni Mitchell rejected the role of the audience's she*t eater, Chan's grabbing it with both hands.

That's what's going on lyrically. Musically? The label (Matador Records) is pushing that this is Chan does Al Green. But listen to it and see if you don't think of Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis instead?

When she covered Nina Simone's "Wild Is The Wind," it was hard not to notice that she had none of Simone's strength vocally. I'm not even talking range here, just in terms of her voice's unique sound. Simone's voice was as commanding as the rules surrounding her performances. Marshall/Power's voice gives off a plush feeling. On The Greatest, she's got the backing her sound has always needed -- the whole luxuriate in a sloth morning of "Breakfast In Bed."

Springfield built a fantasy into each recording. A song became a play and every indication says she meant every painstakingly recorded vocal. The Greatest carries on that tradition. Listen to the moments where accompaniment swells to accent her piano in the title track. Has one of her vocals ever sounded so tender? Has she ever so softly caressed the final notes of a melody line? They're soft, messy, blurry -- like mascara you forgot to remove the night before. "Living Proof" sounds like she's standing on her knees in her bed singing her joy from the night before to her lover. (While beating herself up for being "jealous.") For the entire album, she never seems to leave the bed. That's The Greatest and it's the best coupling of music and her voice she's had.

"Is it a put on?"

"Is she for real?"

Those questions are worth asking. It's how you determine an actual band as opposed to the monkeys. How you draw the line between art and product.

The way I hear it, Chan Marshall was the girl in high school who always spoke a little too quickly while playing with her hair and always left listeners confused as to what was reality and what was fantasy. Those girls (and boys) weren't fakes. They weren't pretending to be something they weren't. They were, however, exploring two worlds. The worlds the rest of us lived in high school and their own interior landscapes composed of alternate fantasies and additional meanings.

It's easy now to forget the critical invective that was regularly hurled at Stevie Nicks. An audience has grown up with her and the issue is no longer, "Are there 'Sisters of the Moon'?" so much as, "Can we meet them?"

What a Nicks or a Kate Bush or Chan Marshall/Cat Power does isn't fake. They're not "putting on." They're not calculating the market or listening to some man advise them to "shake it." They aren't Disney Kids pretending. This is who they are.

Right now Chan Marshall/Cat Power is an artist with one of the strongest albums released this year. But with the sudden cancellation of her tour, Marshall/Power is once again the subject of "reality" questions.

Here's reality, she sounds like she's lived (in reality or fantasy) every note. And The Greatest? It's a sensual album with more layers of sexuality than the posers have beats-per-minute. If you're a fan, this is a must have. If you're new to Marshall/Power, you're only disappointment may be that, high on this album, you check out the earlier ones. They're not dogs by any means, but this is the sort of benchmark album that identifies an artist for years to come.

[Note: This is the first of Kat's two CD reviews. The other posts tomorrow evening.]