Reviews

Cat Power

Thomas Bartlett
Cat Power

Cat Power

City: New York
Venue: Irving Plaza
Date: 2003-02-24

Much has been made about Cat Power's Chan Marshall as a live performer in the same way that much was made about Michael Jordan as a baseball player: people love to talk about how bad they are, the idea being that Jordan should stick to the basketball court, and Marshall to the recording studio. She has been dogged by rumors of debilitating stage fright, with stories of breaking down on stage and curling into a fetal ball after a few songs, and has been criticized for hiding behind a mop of hair that seems designed to hide her face from the world. I happen to find Chan Marshall an extraordinary and captivating performer, but her concert at Irving Plaza on Tuesday night made it clear that I'm in the minority. The 1,000 person venue was sold out, but by the end of her set at least three-quarters of the crowd had left. It's hard to defend a performer when three out of four people who think they like her enough to spend $15 are so frustrated that they don't even stay to hear the whole show. Marshall and her three bandmates, Will Fratesi on drums, Coleman Lewis on guitar and bass, and Margaret White on violin, bass, and keyboards, took the half-lit stage quietly. Marshall, oddly but characteristically, sat not in the middle, but all the way to the side, with so little light on her that all you could make out was a silhouette. Their first song was "Babydoll", from Cat Power's latest recording, You Are Free. This is one of the creepiest songs Marshall has written, with a whispered refrain of "Don't you want to be free?" and every note of the music making it clear that that's not an option. Unfortunately, Irving Plaza's much vaunted sound system was unable to handle the torrent of ear-splittingly loud noise unleashed by the band (note: sarcasm), and the bass was distorting a bit. As the song ended, Marshall changed her guitar riff a bit and kept right on going, into a song off of M. Ward's Transfigurations of Vincent, which will be released in a few weeks. Ward's cheekiness as a songwriter, which has served him well, was completely nullified by Marshall, who took the slightly goofy refrain of "Sing a sad, sing a sad, sing a sad sad song," and made it into her manifesto. The mood was ruined by an over-enthusiastic fan, who was so thrilled to recognize the song that he thought it would be a good idea to jump up and down yelling "M. Ward! M. Ward!" over and over again. Next was "I Don't Blame You", the first song off of You Are Free, performed there on solo piano and voice, but transformed here into a country-tinged ballad, with completely different chords and a much-altered melody. Marshall loves to do this, both with her own songs and with covers, treating a song as if the lyrics are all that's important, and even the overall mood is negotiable, often with remarkable effect. One of the great pleasures of the album version of "I Don't Blame You" is hearing Marshall's vocal overdubs. To say that her voice blends well with itself is meaningless, but something magic happens when you hear a choir of Cat Powers. One of the distinctive features of Marshall's singing is her sense of pitch: she routinely hits notes that are "out of tune" by normal standards, but there is never any question that she has done so consciously, and in full control. This opens up an entirely unexpected range of melodic nuance, and the effect is reinforced when she overdubs herself. Live, of course, this is not possible, and somehow the regrettable decision was made to have Margaret White sing backup vocals instead. This is rather like giving Golem a staff and asking him to fill in for Gandalf, and the results were not pretty. It was the premiere of a new band, Strangled Chicken Power. Things only got worse on the next song, "Good Woman", also from You Are Free. Here, the increasingly unfortunate Ms. White attempted not only to sing Marshall's backup vocals, but also to fill in for the small chorus of children on the album, while playing the violin part recorded by the great Warren Ellis of Dirty Three. All three impersonations met with an equal lack of success, and I was worried that she might attempt to fill in for Eddie Vedder as well. Add a wheelchair bound German scientist and a clueless French inspector and it's beginning to sound like a job for Peter Sellers. White's ineptitude leads to a puzzling question: why did Marshall, who has enough clout that both Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl appear on her latest album, and whose last backing band consisted of Jim White and Mick Turner of Dirty Three, hire such a mediocre band for this tour? While I have no reasonable answer to this question, I can report that, with the exception of White's vocals, the band was never distractingly bad, and it takes a serious distraction (diagnosis of cancer, a blow job, Margaret White singing) to detract from the pleasure of hearing Chan Marshall's voice. Before I had heard Cat Power perform, I had assumed that she would not be a great live performer, not because of the tales of stage fright, but because her vocals are so delicate, so introspective, and so carefully controlled on recording that it seemed unlikely that she would be able to recreate it live. It was a real surprise to find that voice perfectly intact, every bit as beautiful as it is on record. For the past few years Marshall has been touring solo, and while this band is certainly not the best she has ever assembled, it still served as a reminder to hear how good she can sound with a drumbeat behind her. The band sounded best on some of her older songs, like the excellent "Rockets", and even on a version of her classic Moon Pix song "American Flag". Here, the band built up a thick but not particularly obtrusive wall of sound, a bed of electric sound for Marshall to sing over. Imagine the Velvet Underground with Nico, and then imagine if Nico could sing. Still, it is solo that Marshall really shines as a performer, and it is when she's on stage alone that the full extent of her eccentricity is revealed. Once the rest of the band left the stage, it took a full ten minutes before she got through a song. First she hit a few random notes on the piano. Then she muttered something into the microphone. Then she asked for some more reverb. The Brazilian girl sitting next to me thought she had asked for some reefer, and prepared to go up to the stage to give her a joint. When I explained what Marshall had meant, she said "Why doesn't she sing some of her more uplifting songs? She has really uplifting songs, doesn't she?" Sorry babe, wrong show. You must be thinking of Meatloaf. What followed for the next 45 minutes was the classic Cat Power concert experience: Marshall singing short snippets of covers before deciding that she either didn't remember the lyrics, or didn't want to sing that song, crowd requests often turning into brilliantly strange impromptu versions of songs, and an ever dwindling audience. I found every second of it captivating. The Motown classic "Can I Get A Witness" sounded like a ghost singing along with a black church service. A song that combined phrases of the Everly Brothers "(All I Have To Do Is) Dream", "Blue Moon", and Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness" was enough to convince me that all is well in the world. The crowd seemed pleased when Marshall started the haunting piano line for "Names", a song off You Are Free. It is certainly an extraordinary piece, and one of Marshall's best melodies, but the lyrics are her first ever foray into bad taste. Each verse chronicles the misfortunes of a child, each more depressing than the last, but the agony is more than a little heavy-handed. Belle and Sebastian tried the same idea, much more effectively, on "If You're Feeling Sinister" by injecting the proceedings with a little humor. Marshall's band then rejoined her for a surprisingly energetic version of the White Stripes "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground", and a chilling performance of her own "Cross Bones Style". As Marshall left the stage after nearly two and a half hours of performance, I had to question again the idea that she hates performing so much. If that were the case, would she really choose to play for that long? Maybe she has as much fun on stage as I do in the audience.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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