Cat Power's Mighty Frailty
It was more than a dozen years ago, but I still have vivid memories of the first time I saw Cat Power play — the band's first New York show, I'm pretty sure, at a short-lived Brooklyn loft space called Bicycle. They were a six- or eight-piece band in those days, with a legion of guitar players surrounding singer, guitarist and sole permanent member Chan Marshall, who'd just recently moved from Atlanta. She was already displaying the "can't perform/must perform" syndrome she's infamous for — as the band struggled to make it from one end of one of their two-chord songs to the other, she got a lost, despairing look on her face, and murmured: "We suck… We suck… I suck most…" Cat Power were a mess, but there was also something riveting about them from the get-go: Marshall's voice, her lyrics 'swerve from foreboding ambiguities to unnerving specifics, her absolute command of mood.
I ended up helping some friends put out the first Cat Power single, and Marshall sang a little on a couple of albums my label released. Like everybody I know who talked to her back then, I've got stories about her; like most of those stories, mine revolve around her utter mortification at praise for the gifts she compulsively displays. (That seems to have gotten better over the last few years; the last time I saw her play, in the summer of 2004, she was relaxed and confident, and ended her set by bounding around the stage, lip-synching to the pre-teen Seattle duo Smoosh's giddy hip-hop pastiche "Rad.") I haven't been in touch with Marshall for many years, but it's still a joy to hear her increasingly masterful, unpredictable records.
Cat Power's new one, The Greatest, was recorded in Memphis's Ardent Studios, with local session musicians including the Hodges brothers, who played on the great early-'70s Al Green albums. It's not exactly a soul album — there's more Memphis country than Memphis R&B here — but the vibe of Green records like "I'm Still In Love With You" still seeps through to the album's pulse. So does the alt-rock Marshall grew up with; when she puts "I hate myself and I want to die" into a character's mouth in "Hate," she's quoting Kurt Cobain, and although the title of "Love and Communication" is a variation on Green's "Love and Happiness," its arrangement has as much New York guitar noise as Tennessee string-section drama.
The Greatest is the haziest record she's made so far, constantly evoking things she doesn't quite name. The title track barely alludes to Muhammad Ali ("the greatest," "two fists of solid rock"), but most of it obliquely suggests unrealized ambition instead: "Lower me down/ Pin me in/ Secure the grounds/ For the later parade." The first line of "Lived In Bars" could be a memory of wild youth — "lived in bars and danced on tables" — or it could be a snapshot of abandoned places — "lived-in bars and danced-on tables," reinforced by later lines about empty houses and an absent man. And the double-time bar-walking R&B grind and sax solo of the song's last minute is a brilliant touch, a distant, dust-tinted memory of a hedonistic moment.
"Willie," the weightless six-minute meditation at the center of the album, has been in Marshall's repertoire for a few years now. (A three-times-as-long version, "Willie Deadwilder," was recorded at the sessions for 2003's You Are Free, and released with her Speaking for Trees DVD.) It starts off acting like a narrative ballad — "Willie Deadwilder and Rebecca/ They knew that they loved one another" — and gradually veers off that track. It loses touch with Willie and Rebecca; it becomes a first-person song from the voice that's telling us the story; it hints at some kind of plaintive reason the story started to be told in the first place ("I'm on the same side as you/ I'm just a little behind").
A lot of The Greatest sounds much simpler than it is. Her voice is the key: it seems like an undifferentiated, melancholy half-whisper, until you pay attention. She sings "Living Proof" wholeheartedly, for instance, swinging and finessing a melody that actually does sound like '70s soul, but approaches the words so gingerly (aside from a few key phrases she half-spits out, like, "Yes, I was jealous") that it's almost impossible to make out a lot of them. And Marshall's backing vocals are practically a representation of divided consciousness — unraveling at the ends or beginnings of lines, splitting melodies into two or three threadlike voices.
For all its ambiguities, though, there's also no masking what The Greatest is about: it's Marshall's broken-heart album. Song after song alludes to the end of an unworkable relationship, especially "After It All," which perpetually seems on the verge of moving on to the next chord of a simple sequence, or the next emotion of a post-breakup moment stranded between denial and bargaining ("Will you come back to me/ Tell me that it never was up to you or up to me?"), and never gets past the place where it begins.
That's really why the Memphis sound is integral to the effect and meaning of this album. The musicians Marshall's using made their names with late-night soul music (and the studio, Ardent, is where Big Star recorded "Nightime," another major reference point here). The Greatest's songs make it the saddest kind of late-night album — the kind about the raw ache that sets in when you're on your own again and it's three in the morning — but its supple, gliding groove makes the pain sweet.