I have lots of guilty pleasures, and one of them is that I never say Cat Power’s name. I sing it, instead, the way Homer Simpson sings about his name that he got from Marge’s hair-dryer.
(Sorry about the quality. It was either that or a clip in Spanish, which is TOTES AWESOME, but not precisely what i needed.)
So. Cat Power! Like Homer, she took her name from machinery – the Caterpillar heavy machinery manufacturer – but that’s where the comparisons end. Chan Marshall (her real name) grew up in the American South and moved to New York at the age of twenty, where she began a music career primarily as a way (by her own admission) to hang with her friends and do drugs. However, her talent couldn’t be hidden for long, and when a member of Sonic Youth saw her open for Liz Phair, it wasn’t long before she was signed and making records. It’s her 2003 album, You Are Free, that I’m going to review, as it’s the first album by Cat Power that I heard, and still the one that carries the deepest associations for me. I first heard it in my freshman year of college and still the songs evoke the feelings and surroundings of that year.
You Are Free opens with a sequence of piano chords that set the tone for the album: measured and contemplative, in a faintly minor key that adds just the right amount of tension. The song itself, “I Don’t Blame You,” is rumoured to be about Kurt Cobain, and it’s a ballsy choice to open an album with a song about a fellow musician now dead from suicide.
Marshall has said in interviews that the she struggled with alcoholism and depression for years herself, although she refuses to discuss the subject of the song. Regardless, “I Don’t Blame You” is a gorgeous and well-fitting beginning to You Are Free, as it’s a record fraught with images of loss and vulnerability.
From the simple “Names,” a catalogue of the drug addicted, abused, and generally innocence-lost children Marshall knew while growing up, to the eerie “Werewolf,” which tells the story of a man lost in his own animal nature, You Are Free doesn’t shy away from exploring the wounded and the exposed. The hard-rocking “He War” with its raw bass and power chords is confrontational; “Half of You” is tender and loving with atmospheric strings; the flat drums and low picking in “Babydoll” are whispered and sympathetic. Each of these songs, though, express a longing for something that is gone and can never be recovered. Whether it’s a relationship, a home, a state or peace of mind, Marshall mourns for it, yearns for its presence, and we grieve with her.
Then there’s the heartbreaking “Good Woman,” which I present without comment, other than to say that this was my breakup song of choice at the end of one of my most cherished relationships:
(I might be crying right now.)
As on many of her albums, Marshall also includes a few covers on You Are Free. The great John Lee Hooker is represented with “Keep On Runnin’ (Crawlin’ Black Spider)” is here, throaty and deep, slowed way down. “Werewolf” is originally a Michael Hurley composition, and Marshall more than does it justice – it might be my favourite song on the album.
The trick that makes the album so great is that there is no trick. There’s no flash, no showboating or unnecessary flourishes, even with Eddie Vedder guesting on a few tracks as lead guitar. The melodies on You Are Free are all composed of short phrases, repeated without elaboration, either on piano or guitar. Marshall layers her voice over the top in two- or three-part harmonies – she’s very much a live performer rather than a studio girl, and so she tinkers with her songs as little as possible to make sure they still sound the same when she plays them live as when she records them. The result is an collection of songs as pleasing in its simplicity as in its excellence.
Right, so that’s it for the review, but guess what, P-Maggers, there’s MORE!
I’m a huge playlist nerd – I often will just open up my iTunes and start making lists of songs that share a common variable. Songs about colours, for example, or a twelve-song set that names each month in the year. Currently, my favorite playlist is entitled “meta,” and it contains only songs that mention other musical artists in the title – including such gems as Camera Obscura’s “Dory Previn,” Dan Bern’s “Kurt Cobain,” and The Wombat’s incredible “Let’s Dance To Joy Division.”
So, to get people commenting, I’m starting Playlist Challenges heree! Each week, I’ll post a theme, and I want you to contribute a song to the playlist – either through a YouTube video or just a simple title. Next week, I’ll compile all the entries and list them for you.
This week’s theme: I want your favourite dance tune! What’s your absolute first request for any dance DJ at a party or in a nightclub, or what do you dance to in your bedroom (in your pants!) when no-one’s listening? Send it in to me! Here’s a song by Scandinavian wonders the Sounds to get you thinking (and grooving):
Till next week, Persephoneers!