Wednesday, 30 January 2008

CAT POWER: Woman Left Lonely

There seems to be developing a feeling that Cat Power isn't what she was, as though she weren't permitted to be anyone else, or worse, getting too big for her externally fitted boots. One particularly idiotic reviewer of her recent performance at the Shepherd's Bush Empire commented, after musing on the destructive capacities of depression, that: "in stamping out the weak parts of herself, (Chan) Marshall has also destroyed everything that was aching and haunting and beautiful in her voice." In other words, stay in the station we've allotted for you, lady; you're not allowed to get happy or confident and betray our self-pleasing fantasy of nihilism. The comment engenders even more depression in the constant reader when one realises that it was written by a woman.

Properly attentive listening to Jukebox tells a different, more obviously bifurcated story. This is her second interpretative album which balances hard-won new confidence with perhaps as much dread and emptiness as she has thus far expressed on record. It was recorded as live, in real time with a working band, and the ripples of aorta and pulsations of hairs and veins are immediately discernible in Gregg Foreman's throbbing, delayed reaction keyboards, Judah Bauer's guitar which can track as closely as the keenest of timber wolves (see Marshall's necessarily more tragic reading of Hank Williams' "Ramblin' (Wo)Man" with its no going back subtext) and cry as imposingly as any hurricane-inducing cloud (his vast Doric arches of sustenato on "Lost Someone") and Jim White's always elegant and relevant drums. Her downcasting of "New York, New York" induces thoughts not of hope, but of the arms held out, ready to strangle Ray Charles upon his return to Georgia; yet her luxuriously hissed "Don't Explain" threatens with cushions of steel.

Elsewhere, though, she sounds now capable of happiness; her cheerfully defiant version of Dylan's "I Believe In You" (I hope that in the future she essays Mark Hollis' "I Believe In You") segues into her own "Song For Bobby," one of the tenderest songs she has ever performed and one of the finest descriptions of the progression from childhood fan to peer admiration to actual, palpable love I've heard in music for some time, with admirably patient accompaniment. Although her upgrade of her own "Metal Heart" tries a little too hard to underline that which, in its original Moon Pix version, required no underlining, "Silver Stallion" is suitably sensuous and "Aretha Play One For Me" leaves the door slightly ajar to let in tomorrow.

However, she is often beyond despondency as the record reaches its close; the closing duo of Joni's "Blue" and Cave's "Breathless" is nearly too painful to digest with the former's post-Wyatt deathly slow two-chord organ seesaw oscillation (with organ eventually weeping into piano) and the latter nearly whispering its tears into the canyon of irreversible decline - those post-Julie Driscoll bends, those (deceptively) post-Beth Gibbons hoarse confidence inlets in her voice are always more effective the quieter the music gets.

My pick, though, is her "Woman Left Lonely," penned by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham and best known in Janis Joplin's reading; rather than excoriate herself with yells and hollers, she spells out her desertion simply, plainly and (yet) invitingly, and is aided by the unsullying and steadfast accompaniment, including Oldham himself on the Hammond and deadpan vocal harmonies, gently pushing her expression(ism) onwards but leaving the listener with the feeling that once again she'll get through this; there is gentleness to balance the sudden forthright thrust, and finally Chan Marshall gets close enough to the mirror to see her own face, cautiously smiling back.