Like Blondie, Cat Power is a group, but one principally the work of Chan Marshall. Armed only with a battered-looking Steinway and a lone guitar, it is Chan Marshall alone that brushes the hair from her eyes, steadies her eggshell voice, and taps into a cycle of song with few contemporary parallels.
A bold claim, sure, but there are few other performers who can pluck songs from the air as Chan Marshall appears to do. Her face covered by hippy-chick hair, fringe as fussy as Cousin It’s, Marshall seems to sniff out melodies out, cajoling sound and melody from the Smithsonian Institute of her mind. Segueing from cover to cover, blending original into original, so much so that the joins are audible only from appreciative but uncertain applause.
It would be inaccurate to call this a performance. A performance might imply rehearsal, pre-decided tempos, a meticulously planned set of new songs mixed with familiar favourites knocked out at judicious moments. Rather this is an un-performance. Chan Marshall renders terms like ‘polish’ and ‘professionalism’ redundant, with only a buffer of nervous charm offering any indication that we are not just eavesdropping on a spectacularly gifted amateur before the main attraction arrives.
A new album is rumoured to be imminent, and many songs are unfamiliar as Marshall switches from guitar to piano and back at will. But in truth, it’s difficult to be sure. Devastatingly raw balladry such as Rule The Islands, You and King Rides By begin and end by rote, then reappear to punctuate referential dips into devotional torchery such as Otis Redding‘s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long and These Arms Of Mine with James Brown‘s Try Me. One song reflects another, Marshall’s own compositions of apiece with the emotionally devastated subtext with these rhythm and blues of yore.
Like Bob Dylan, Marshall chooses to switch around her arrangements according to mood. Names loses some of its darker lines (which isn’t saying much) while her celebrated take on The Rolling Stones‘ Satisfaction unexpectedly regains its strutting chorus. Good Woman is given a thankfully full reading, a melancholy farewell equal to any of the broken love songs of the Bard of Duluth’s pre-electric period.
Incredibly, grim it is not. Hymns for the luckless they may be, but the grapple with her art is nothing less than absorbing. She sings with the innocence of one dazzled by music, by her own abilities, and those of others. She introduces The White Stripes‘ I Want To Be The Boy That Warms Your Mother’s Heart with a shy “I wish nobody knew this song”.
There is no encore, but then I’m not absolutely sure she knew we were there. Drifting at some point between brittle and beautiful, brutal and tranquil, Cat Power is really out on her own.