Like Blondie, Cat Power is a group, but oneprincipally the work of Chan Marshall. Armed only witha battered-looking Steinway and a lone guitar, it isChan Marshall alone that brushes the hairfrom her eyes, steadies her eggshell voice, and tapsinto a cycle of song with few contemporaryparallels.
A bold claim, sure, but there are few otherperformers who can pluck songs from the air as ChanMarshall appears to do. Her face covered byhippy-chick hair, fringe as fussy as Cousin It’s,Marshall seems to sniff out melodies out, cajolingsound and melody from the Smithsonian Institute of hermind. Segueing from cover to cover, blending originalinto original, so much so that the joins are audibleonly from appreciative but uncertain applause.
It would be inaccurate to call this a performance.A performance might imply rehearsal, pre-decidedtempos, a meticulously planned set of new songs mixedwith familiar favourites knocked out at judiciousmoments. Rather this is an unperformance. ChanMarshall renders terms like ‘polish’ and’professionalism’ redundant, with only a buffer ofnervous charm offering any indication that we are notjust eavesdropping on a spectacularly-gifted amateurbefore the main attraction arrives.
A new album is rumoured to be imminent, and manysongs are unfamiliar as Marshall switches from guitarto piano and back at will. But in truth, it’s difficultto be sure. Devastatingly raw balladry such as RuleThe Islands, You and King Rides By begin and endby rote, then reappear to punctuate referential dipsinto devotional torchery such as Otis Redding‘sI’ve Been Loving You Too Long and These Arms OfMine with James Brown‘s Try Me. One songreflects another, Marshall’s own compositions of apiece with the emotionally devastated subtext withthese rhythm and blues of yore.
Like Bob Dylan, Marshall chooses to switcharound her arrangements according to mood. Namesloses some of its darker lines (which isn’t sayingmuch) while her celebrated take on the Rolling Stones‘Satisfaction unexpectedly regains its struttingchorus. Good Woman is given a thankfully fullreading, a melancholy farewell equal to any of thebroken love songs of the Bard of Duluth’s pre-electricperiod.
Incredibly, grim it is not. Hymns for the lucklessthey may be, but the grapple with her art is nothingless than absorbing. She sings with the innocence ofone dazzled by music, by her own abilities, and thoseof others. She Introduces the White Stripes‘ IWant To Be The Boy That Warms Your Mother’s Heartwith a shy “I wish nobody knew this song”.
There is no encore, but then I’m not absolutelysure she knew we were there. Drifting at some pointbetween brittle and beautiful, brutal and tranquil,Cat Power is really out on her own.