Cat Power

    Dear Sir (Plain, 1995)
    Myra Lee (Smells Like Records, 1996)
     What Would the Community Think (Matador, 1996)
      Moon Pix (Matador, 1998)
     The Covers Record (Matador, 2000)
     You Are Free (Matador, 2003)
      The Greatest (Matador, 2006)
   Jukebox (Matador, 2008)
   Dark End of the Street (Matador, 2008)

Cat Power is the Georgia-born indie-rock songwriter Chan Marshall, famed for her coldblooded, intimate voice; her shaky guitar; and her propensity for onstage meltdowns. Cat Power first gained notoriety in 1996 for "Not What You Want," the closing track of her second album, Myra Lee. For nearly six minutes, Marshall strums her guitar and wails the title phrase over and over, wistfully at first, and then desperately; by the end, she's moaning and screaming and banging her head against the wall. It's nails-on-a-chalkboard for nonfans, a sublime moment of hag-rock transcendence for true devotees, and Cat Power's entire career in a nutshell.

What Would the Community Think is leaner and tougher, powered by the rhythm section of Two Dollar Guitar guitarist, Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Marshall intones a memorable cover of Smog's "Bathysphere," and rocks out in the vaguely creepy, definitely cathartic "Nude as the News," yelping "I still have a flame gun for the cute ones" with her own cryptic sort of menace. Moon Pix is even stronger, a long, bleak night of cold sweat scored for guitar, and it still holds up as one of the Nineties great singer/songwriter triumphs. While musicians from the Dirty Three play atmospheric folk-punk background, Marshall sings raggedy, sorrowful ballads like "Metal Heart" and "Say," stretching her vowels out into forlorn moans. It's a quiet album, but the songs get more powerful the closer you listen, as Marshall testifies to her unbearable longing for an unbearable love.

You Are Free was even more expansive musically than Moon Pix, ranging further afield in terms of songwriting (with a few gaffes) but with a renewed sense of emotional urgency, bringing in flourishes of gospel and even disco uplift in great songs like "Free," "Speak for Me," and "Good Woman." In between, Marshall had her most eccentric success with The Covers Record, paying tribute to her personal hit parade with versions of songs by Lou Reed, Moby Grape, Smog, and Michael Hurley, plus a trip through "Sea Of Love." Best of all, Marshall strips down the Stones' "Satisfaction," ditching the chorus and wailing over just acoustic guitar. "Baby baby baby, come back," she pleads. "Can't you see I'm on a losing streak?" She waits a week. He doesn't come back. She still can't get no satisfaction. Scary shit, and a typical Cat Power bone chiller.

After a down-and-out spell, she returned with The Greatest, which became her most popular and acclaimed album, recorded in Memphis with soul veterans like Teenie Hodges and Steve Potts. The hypnotic R&B pulse carries bleak tales like "Lived In Bars," "The Moon" and "Willie." With a host of new fans, she banged out a couple more records of covers (Jukebox and Dark End of the Street), but while the songs are well-chosen and well-sung, she gets drowned out by the beyond-cheesy bar-blues backup band. Any fan should track down the 2004 DVD Speaking For Trees, where she basically just sits down with a guitar and sings for two hours; the bonus CD has the 18-minute "Willie Deadwilder," featuring M. Ward on guitar, a shaggy-dog epic that rates up there with Neil Young's "Ambulance Blues" or Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row."

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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