Trying to get to the essence of a Cat Power record is like catching feathers. With one change in breeze, shift in weather or light, a sound and inflection that once seemed composed of the most intensely iridescent plumage can suddenly verge on the prosaic. Attempting to grasp them with ham-fists at the ready can shatter their deceptive guile into the ether.
The Greatest, simultaneously the most-fully-realised of Chan Marshall’s seven albums and yet one of missed opportunities, is no exception.
For her previous album (2003’s You Are Free), Marshall enlisted the fleeting help of alt-rockers like Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder. While waiting for the tardy filing of a new record, Matador fulfilled Marshall’s wish and recruited veterans of the Memphis Hi-Records House band, co-shapers of the finest moments of Al Green, Ann Peebles and Willie Mitchell.
Despite reports to the contrary though, this is no Dusty In Memphis spiritual homecoming. Producer Steve Sikes resists the temptation to match artist to environment. Neither is this an attempt at an appropriation of Southern authenticism. None of the studio sleekness of Rod Stewart‘s similarly Memphis-conscious Atlantic Crossing, or Primal Scream‘s anodyne Give Out But Don’t Give Up will be found here.
Rather, where embellishment has been called for, Marshall’s spare tales of longing, regret and desire are wrapped up in the sedately honky-tonk and skeletal rhythm and blues that the Southern flex of her voice always implied. With all these songs recorded in three takes or less, brothers Mabon “Teenie” (guitar) and Leroy “Flick” (bass) Hodges, together with Steve Potts on drums spend much of this album sounding much closer to Crazy Horse than Booker T & The MG’s.
When prettifying strings are added (The Greatest, Where Is My Love), the contrapuntal effect of Chan Marshall’s trademark double-tracked ‘phantom’ vocal is devastating. And as graveyard ballads go, The Greatest and the The Moon bear favourable comparison with any in the Anglo-American canon.
The Moon is one of four songs who’s sketchy genesis was first sighted on the Australian-only release DVD Speaking For Trees. Performing for only a cameraman and woodland wildlife, this artfully overexposed film made debutantes of The Moon, the starry-eyed Islands and Love And Communication. In truth, the mixture of improvised wistfulness and raw-boned nerve-fraying is only enhanced by accompaniment.
Those who find Cat Power a little too sombre for comfort will find their cause sustained by the fourth song from that quartet, the airless and “accapella” Hate. But in truth the song’s parenthesised refrain of ‘I hate myself and I want to die” is unusual in the Cat Power songbook. Even in her most airless ballads, an open-door to deliverance is hinted at.
The brass and woody organ of Living Proof are on the bright side of jaunty. The doo-wop resonance of Lived In Bars offers sweet salvation to an old drunk, while Could We could have been xeroxed from Van Morrison‘s Tupelo Honey.
Though early plays of the title-track may have lead to a suspicion that Cat Power was at long last heading for the dubious rewards of the mainstream, if Chan Marshall really had wanted to make that leap with this record, she failed. The difficulty is in deciding whether that’s a loss or relief, an unnecessary limitation of her talent or an acknowledgement of her niche.
Time will doubtless tell. In the meantime we have a collection of songs, that when the light hits just so, are as sparkly opaque as the strongest recordings of this major artist.