Prozac Nation Goes Honky Tonk: Introspective indie-pop star crafts classic blues-bar album (but why?)
If you’re one of the “Americana Roots” types who reads this magazine, you’ll love the new Cat Power. Two albums ago on The Covers Record, singer/songwriter/sole proprietor Chan Marshall stripped back any residual punk leanings and covered an eclectic batch of standards with minimalist bravado. While still raw enough to appease her garage-rock fans, it revealed her uncanny ability to interpret “regular” soul, blues and folk songs with idiosyncratic sympathy, without falling into the gaping maw of neo-whitebread roots-revival pap.
The Greatest finds Marshall in similarly non-alternative territory, except this time she’s composed her own original standards. She’s got an “authentic” band of Memphis-soul session musicians, and she’s not afraid to embrace ragtime-piano stylings and the occasional horn section. If such stuff moves you, you’re in for a real treat.
On the other hand, if you’re one of the “College Alternative” types who reads this magazine, you may be left wondering, “Who stole my radio?” Joni Mitchell went jazz, Bob Dylan went electric, Mercury Rev went folk, and I suppose it all worked out for the best. But the sloppy production and goofy musicianship many considered a Cat Power liability (e.g. the wildly arrhythmic drumming on “Cross Bones Style”), I found a charming hallmark. All such DIY quirkiness (for better or worse) is absent from The Greatest’s production.
But whichever side of the musical fence you’re on, the album still works because Chan Marshall is unmistakably genuine in whatever genre she chooses to inhabit. Her heart shows through most in her voice, which is uncharacteristically tonic and easy. On “Could We,” it even qualifies as smoky, inducing visions of Ricky Lee Jones and menthols. Her heart is also present in the album’s songwriting. What she lacks in cool pop riffs she makes up for in mature song structures. It’s not easy to write new standards in any genre, and Marshall has written an album full of them. If producer Rick Rubin were still scavenging the highlands of alternative music to supply Johnny Cash with tunes to reinterpret, he’d need look no further than The Greatest.
Unfortunately, Marshall’s own authenticity is too frequently obscured by the album’s “authentic” arrangements. “Lived in Bars,” “Islands,” and “After It All” are songs I might play for my Dr. John-loving uncle to prove one of my ilk can make good, too. Every Cat Power album (with the exception of Moon Pix) contains several tracks that don’t hold up to the rest; more often than not, these subpar songs are just too dark and monotonous. Ironically, the subpar songs on The Greatest are too bright and legitimate. Maybe Chan got sick of being labeled “depressing” and set out to prove she wasn’t. More likely, she’s taking an honest foray into a genre of American music she reveres.
The strongest tunes on The Greatest shine irrespective of production. “Willie” grooves and romps even as it lilts and exonerates. “Where is My Love?” sounds like something from a Disney production of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, Marshall’s naive piano heartbreakingly augmented by a perspicacious string section that synesthetically serves the dramatic function of a Greek chorus. “Hate” finds Chan back crooning and strumming unaccompanied electric guitar, dark and spooky as ever, like early Nick Drake on angst. The CD’s final track, “Love & Communication,” bears an eerily disarming “Kashmir” vibe: minor-key stadium rock erupting from the juke joint. If every performance were this blessed, I might’ve bought into the project whole hog—muted trumpets, single-note blues riffing and all.
Were this my first exposure to Cat Power, even amidst the honky-tonk haze, Chan’s voice would still merit a double take. It’s truly a national treasure. Joni Mitchell owed it to her voice to leave the plaintive folk melodies of “Clouds” to acrobatically explore more challenging jazz heights. Likewise, I reckon Marshall owes it to her voice to wallow a bit in the beer-soaked back rooms of bar-band Americana. I imagine those Memphis session players scratching their berets, wondering, “Who discovered this gem? Sonic Youth? Never heard of ’em.”
In the end, I like Cat Power’s punk-pop stuff better, because I’m like that. But since most people aren’t, this album will likely be Chan’s ticket to greater acclaim or perhaps even an episode of Austin City Limits. Personally, I’m hoping she revisits the garage, but one man’s basement floor is another man’s barroom ceiling. So belly up and order a Schlitz. There’s a little gal sitting in with the house band tonight who’s a genuine rough in the diamond.