Chan Marshall isn’t a blues singer, but everything she does has an element of the blues to it. She isn’t a folk singer either, but the American folk tradition plays a huge part of who she is as a songwriter. And though she may not be a rock star, when she wants to, she can rock as hard as the best of them.
The complete recorded works of Georgia by way of New York, South Carolina and Miami artist Cat Power, born Charlyn Marie Marshall, reveal a complicated artist, and a highly unpredictable one. Yet throughout Marshall’s career, she’s maintained a singular sense of bluesy melancholy that remains a staple of who she is as a songwriter. And for how frequently she’s courted personal drama onstage and off, from public meltdowns to a handful of scary encounters with substance abuse, Chan Marshall has rarely been anything other than fearless as an artist.
Chan Marshall is a tough nut to crack, at times, but she rarely comes off as anything other than brutally honest. It’s what makes her music so affecting, and over time, the way her vocals have grown into a smoky rasp serve to reveal some of the hard lessons life has handed her, while she’s come out the other end of those lessons a little stronger and, at times, even a little sultrier.
This week, we examine all nine of Cat Power’s studio albums, her evolution as an artist, and what characteristics have remained crucial throughout her career.
The version of Cat Power that Chan Marshall debuted on first album Dear Sir is, in essence, fairly similar to what she’s done all along, just much more stripped down and on a smaller budget. But at its heart, the connection remains — a bluesy, melancholy approach that comes wrapped up in a lot of soul and a lot of tears. Aesthetically, though, Dear Sir is mostly a low-key, lo-fi indie rock album that displays Chan Marshall’s songwriting at its rawest, albeit backed with the veteran skills of Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley and Two Dollar Guitar’s Tim Foljahn. The inclusion of a cover of Tom Waits’ “Yesterday Is Here” reveals an early fascination on covers which would become a constant in Marshall’s discography, though the originals, like the upbeat “Rockets” and single-quality “Headlights” are ultimately what stand out as the strongest points. As a debut, it’s more of a representation of an artist’s promise more than an absolute success, but the songwriting skills are there, if not the complete picture.
Rating: 7.4 out of 10
(1996; Smells Like)
Released only six months after Dear Sir, and what would be her second album of three in a one-year span (beating out Robyn and Ty Segall to the concept by a decade and a half), Myra Lee is considerably darker and more complex than its predecessor, but at the same time, a good measure more difficult. It can’t be a complete coincidence that Steve Shelley plays on this album, which sounds frequently like the dissonant songs of early Sonic Youth. Nonetheless, Marshall’s bluesy, folk-influenced songwriting still remains the focus, but presented in a considerably more gothic fashion. Its opening track, “Enough,” speeds up and slows down in pursuit of a nervous breakdown more than a climax, which grows even more intense when re-recorded for the same year’s What Would The Community Think. Similarly, “We All Die” is a harsh noise rock trip that follows a descending riff into the underworld. The cover this time around is a sparse, jangly take on Hank Williams’ “Still In Love,” and the re-recorded version of “Rockets” continues a tradition of revisiting old songs, which comes up repeatedly through Marshall’s career (Dear Sir‘s “Headlights,” itself was a reprise of an early single). There’s a little more complexity to Myra Lee, though Marshall is still one album away from really tapping into the kind of affecting songwriting that made her later albums such emotional powerhouses.
Rating: 7.0 out of 10
What Would the Community Think
With two albums released in less than a year, Chan Marshall had transitioned from Steve Shelley’s Smells Like Records to bigger indie Matador, which is where she revealed her first flat-out great record. On a purely aesthetic scale, What Would The Community Think is cut from the same cloth as its predecessors. It features the same musicians, maintains the same production style, and even has some of the same songs — Myra Lee‘s “Enough” is made into an even more manic and climactic track here in the penultimate slot. But the songwriting here is stronger and more sophisticated. “Good Clean Fun” seems always on the verge of snapping, its tense verses extending into some dangerous places before finally revealing a chorus that references Carly Simon and never actually explodes. “Taking People” has some gorgeous slide leads, and “Nude As the News” is one of the most intense and intensely personal songs in the entire Cat Power catalog. It comes from a place of genuine struggle and anguish, as it was written about Marshall’s own experience having an abortion when she was 20. She didn’t reveal this information until more than a decade later, but even when the meaning remained a secret, its primal, emotional power was palpable and tangible on some unspoken level. There are, of course, a few covers, which likewise make for some strong inclusions, particularly Marshall’s take on Smog’s “Bathysphere.” Smog’s Bill Callahan was her boyfriend at the time, and the two would move in together in a house in South Carolina, though that didn’t last. Callahan has a long history of writing outstanding songs, though in this case, Marshall’s is the definitive one.
Rating: 8.9 out of 10
Moon Pix is Cat Power’s best album. This is, of course, entirely arguable. There is no qualitative way of proving it, and there are just as many entirely valid defenses for many of Chan Marshall’s other records, though You Are Free is probably the one that stands up strongest against this one. Moon Pix isn’t a victory because it’s the most perfectly executed, though the haunting and graceful backing by members of The Dirty Three certainly back that up. And it’s not the best album because it’s the best sounding — it sounds great, though later albums like The Greatest would prove that bigger recording budgets could, in fact, greatly enhance Cat Power’s sonic potential. What makes Moon Pix so special, really, is that it nearly perfectly encapsulates everything so bewitching about Chan Marshall’s dark, honest songwriting. While her approach her remains generally as sparse as that of her previous few albums, there’s something more emotionally gripping about this one. Her vocals for one, seem less guarded and less mumbled. She isn’t so much belting, but her singing is definitely stronger, which stands out on the soaring highs of “American Flag,” which features a backwards drum loop sampled from the Beastie Boys, and on “Metal Heart,” a heartstrings tugger that climaxes with Marshall harmonizing with her own double-tracked vocals on lines lifted from “Amazing Grace.” Yet part of what makes the album all the more interesting is the chilling gothic atmosphere that seeps through every track, as it does on the crackle of thunder in “Say,” or the eerie flute that accompanies “He Turns Down.” In doing press for the album, Marshall tells a recurring tale in which she’s awoken by someone in a field in South Carolina, becomes surrounded by evil spirits and starts writing songs to keep from altogether losing it. Her life would only take a darker turn a few years later, though in this case it provided some effective inspiration. Marshall slowly chants “You… have… seen… some… un… believable things” on standout single “Cross Bones Style,” and frankly, based on the music she presents here, it’s not all that hard to believe.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10
The Covers Record
If pressed to name the Cat Power album that first-timers should listen to before any others, I’d most likely be inclined to name Moon Pix or You Are Free, which are not only Chan Marshall’s most accessible albums, but also two of her best. Yet there’s part of me that would also suggest The Covers Record, not because it’s her finest album, though it’s certainly stunning in its spare, skeletal beauty. Rather, it’s a key album in getting a better insight into who Chan Marshall is as a musician and a songwriter. That probably sounds counterintuitive – gaining insight into a songwriter’s persona via other people’s songs – but it’s through her choice of covers that the composite picture of Marshall’s various influences, and the manner in which she applies her own filters, in which we gain greater understanding. Half of the album comprises either standards or traditional folk songs from the public domain, including a gorgeously spare take on “Sea of Love” and a haunting, tearjerker of a take on “Wild Is the Wind.” Her choice of rock covers is all the more revealing, however. In Marshall’s hands, Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” goes from a heartfelt love song to a statement of faith and acceptance of death. Even more remarkable is her cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” which strips the song of its chorus and turns a rollicking rock classic into a blues strummer that falls somewhere between anguished and flat-out depressed. And true to her pattern on past albums, Marshall covers one of her own songs here, What Would the Community Think‘s “In This Hole,” presented without agitated feedback, and with less of a sense of urgency. The Covers Record is one of Marshall’s most emotional records, part of which comes from how stripped down it is, and part of which comes from Marshall’s connection to the songs, which is remarkably different from that of their original performers. More than any other album in her catalog, it’s a reflection of how crucial traditional American blues and folk music is on Chan Marshall’s songwriting, and through this filter she reveals some of her most soulful work.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
You Are Free
In a manner of speaking, You Are Free is Cat Power’s breakup album with fame. Every artist with some level of success goes through it, from Neil Young’s On the Beach to Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait. But Marshall’s kiss-off to being held on a pedestal, which has only compounded in recent years with some uncomfortably forthcoming interviews (which come to think of it make her kind of a rock star for being so anti-glamour), is neither as angry as Young’s nor as shambling as Dylan’s. In fact, You Are Free is second only to Moon Pix in terms of being Marshall’s most cohesive and powerful statement. It also, ironically, is the album with the most famous guest musicians. Eddie Vedder lends his backing vocals to “Good Woman,” a sad chamber folk song that chills with its gentle narration of a crumbling domestic scene. And Dave Grohl, skin smasher to the stars, adds some sufficiently intense drumming to “He War” and “Speak For Me,” which stand as two of the strongest capital-R Rock albums in Marshall’s catalog. The former in particular is a highlight in its punk-edged sound and bright touches of piano, though Marshall herself has expressed disappointment in the final product, which largely stems from not being able to record in the same studio at the same time as the Foo Fighters frontman. But that’ll happen; few artists are 100 percent satisfied with their albums, especially an artist as mercurial as Marshall. And yet, that sort of gets to the heart of where Marshall is with You Are Free. On first track “I Don’t Blame You,” she sings, “They wanted to hear that sound/ but you didn’t want to play,” echoing the sometimes awkward performances from early in her career, or the pressures that come with being a performer. And on “Free,” she warns against false idols, “Don’t fall in love with the autograph.” Marshall’s own offstage drama escalated dramatically during this period, particularly due to drug and alcohol abuse, but it nonetheless marks a turning point at which she at the very least sounded like she was gaining steadier footing, even if that wasn’t always the case when the music stopped.
Rating: 9.2 out of 10
Almost anything that Cat Power has recorded could in some way be classified as sad and beautiful, but in the case of The Greatest, it’s sad and beautiful in a much more conventional manner. Which is to say, it’s a classic pop album that appeals as much to the Starbucks crowd as it does to the hardcore indie fans clued in since Marshall first began recording with Steve Shelley. To capture this rich, soulful aesthetic, Marshall recorded in Memphis with some of the biggest session players of the ’60s and ’70s, including Leroy and Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who are best known for backing Al Green. As such, it garnered a few Dusty In Memphis comparisons upon release, which is perfectly fitting given the brassy, breezy soul of songs like “Could We” and “Living Proof,” the latter of which ranks among Marshall’s sexiest tunes, rhythmically speaking. But the vulnerability that’s been part of her music remains, it just manifests itself in different ways, from the third-person tale of a boxing hopeful on the lush, heartbreaking title track (“Once I wanted to be the greatest/ Two fists of solid rock/ With brains that could explain any feeling“) to the more conventionally Cat Power-sounding “Hate,” with almost satire-level lines of self-loathing: “I said hate me, myself and I / Said I hate myself and I want to die.” The unexpected peak, however, comes in the final track, “Love & Communication,” which abandons the lushly arranged pop sound for a dirty, Crazy Horse-style barnburner that at once finds Marshall sounding both abrasively defiant and perfectly natural.
Rating: 8.7 out of 10
Cat Power’s first album of covers, The Covers Record, was mesmerizing in how simply Chan Marshall took on various rock and folk songs from a wide range of eras, and made them entirely her own. Jukebox is another album entirely comprising covers, including a cover of a Cat Power song, but the feeling isn’t nearly as enchanting. The idea, admittedly, is cool: Marshall and the Dirty Delta Blues Band, which made up the touring band she used behind The Greatest that featured members of The Dirty Three, Chavez and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, play a loose and soulful session of covers. That’s it! Simple, easy, hard to ruin. But something about it just doesn’t add up to the gorgeous, charming collection that The Covers Record did. In fact, some of it is downright corny. The band’s take on Frank Sinatra’s “New York” takes a light, breezy standard and attempts to make it grittier, which in turn only makes it cornier. Her cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” is cool enough, but doesn’t quite match the graceful sadness of the original. But the biggest point of contention is her reworking of Moon Pix‘s “Metal Heart.” Granted, five out of nine Cat Power albums feature a song in its second version, but this one feels utterly unnecessary. The original is so achingly gorgeous, I’m not sure why you’d want to mess with it, but then again, this is something she’s been known to do repeatedly, so why stop now, I guess. The remainder of the album is fine enough, but Jukebox on the whole seems like it could have been divided up in to b-sides.
Rating: 6.0 out of 10
As of 2012, Chan Marshall is a grown-ass woman of 40, and a good listen through Sun, her ninth album, certainly reflects that. It’s a much tighter album than her 2008 covers jam Jukebox, and even a more dynamic record than The Greatest, which admittedly contained some of her prettiest songs. But what’s most important about Sun is how much Marshall challenges herself to expand into weirder but nonetheless remarkable material. Lead single “Ruin” makes good use of the Dirty Delta Blues Band by kicking up a driving rock song that makes for one of the album’s catchiest tracks. “Sun” is one of the few times you’ll hear Marshall’s voice through Auto-tune, though it comes across as more dystopian than Top 40 gaudy. Pulsing krautrocker “Manhattan” is somewhere between Neu! and Eno, and that makes for a particularly satisfying surprise. But then “Silent Machine” just tears shit up the old fashioned way with some down and dirty blues rock. Sun is quintessential Cat Power, but also contains some of the least Cat Power-sounding material she’s ever recorded. For that matter, as evident on the sprawling “Nothin’ But Time,” Marshall sounds more positive than she ever has, and that seems to reflect her personal life, in which she seems to be in a much healthier place than she has through much of her career. A complicated performer with a long and nonetheless captivating history, Cat Power continues to stand as a vessel for fearless and powerful songwriting.
Rating: 9.0 out of 10
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.