Cat Power: You Are Free

Matthew Despres

Cat Power

You Are Free

Label: Matador

As Cat Power, singer/songwriter Chan Marshall remains a stranger to us all, five albums into a career of constructing elementary musical highs lined with devastating emotional lows. Hers is a voice that tugs on the heartstrings of boys seeking refuge in its vulnerability and inspires a subtle defiance in others with its determination to kick, scream, and, if need be, crawl under pressure rather than simply sit down. Note by note, you can feel a world of hurt being liberated by her lullaby voice, the dark ruminations spilling out in a way so honey-sweet and naturally bitter you won't realize the damage done until the last note has fallen away.

On You Are Free, Marshall's first album of original Cat Power material since 1998's Moon Pix, the singer digs in her trunk for dressings both old and new. What she emerges with are the down turned lips of a piano balladeer, the solemn introspection of a folk minstrel, and the smiling, optimistic thoughts of a girl, her guitar, and the friends who happened by to support her muse. The combination is at once frustratingly difficult and likely the most beautiful sound you'll hear this year.

"You were swinging your guitar around, cause they wanted to hear that sound that you didn't want to play / I don't blame you, I don't blame you", whispers Marshall on "I Don't Blame You". The song doubles as the album's threshold and most damning moment of interpretation: the delayed voice that apprehensively hovers over the nodding piano arrangement here implicates more than Marshall may have intended -- namely, herself. It's a mirror confession by a not-so thinly veiled public self, staggering a self-conscious second behind and questioning its need to be heard at all.

More often, though, the power in Marshall's humility wins out over its reluctant surface, and she moves forward from the doubt to embrace a more abstract sense of identity. The self-referential vocals are a haunting addition -- definition leaves her lyrics and meaning is achieved instead through the sound of her voice.

Like on "Werewolf", the Michael Hurley cover she redresses with a film of shivering violins. Beautifully arranged, it evokes moments of uncomfortable intimacy, as does "Good Woman", arguably her best effort here. A simple, fingerpicked expression of loves many losses, Marshall nearly cries her way towards the subliminal tension provided by guest Eddie Vedder in the closing verses. Seldom does restraint sing so loudly.

And when tasteful reserve does make a call to rock, Marshall salutes. The toy-piano introduction on "He War" yields to buzzing guitars and marching drumbeats that slide to a chorus in which she out and out pronounces, pulled from the deep of her gut, the bottled up energy of a woman on the run. The momentum spills out, working over to "Free", a skeletal song snapped into motion by an intermittent, new-wave drum machine, and "Speak for Me", which rewrites conventional song structure by leaving loose ends rough and tying them up into the circular chorus at the end.

When she's caught up with herself, and only then, Marshall is settled enough to pull us in and around her retelling of John Lee Hooker's "Keep on Running". How unique, that she can respond to herself -- and her audience -- through the reflexes of another, the slow blues of a man now dead and buried. Her voice isn't like blood; it is the stuff itself, keeping the overbearing emotion here alive.

The tolling "Evolution" runs itself down at the end, Vedder's voice again a shadow to her already deep end. Humming along like two broken-down lovers, the coupling of the pair implies a second-hand hope; if you've come this far, you can only leave by looking up.

You Are Free isn't the perfect album that the Cat Power community had been hoping for; it's a neighborhood of broken homes, empty streets and backstage alleys open for exploration, a wholly dark scene save for the brief flashes of streetlight optimism. In those moments there are entire worlds to step into, though, and while Marshall will be doing her best to keep a step ahead at every turn, it's a pursuit worth taking on.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.