Ten years ago this very month, 20th January to be exact, Cat Power released (in the USA) her then seventh studio album, The Greatest. A bold title to have chosen at the best of times. Was it actually a greatest hits package? What she considered to be her best album to date? A product of an inflated ego of where she saw herself in the pantheon of musical masters? A personal tribute to Muhammad Ali or even Tony the Tiger!?! Whichever conclusion you came to, it certainly turned out to be her best selling album to date and her first to gain noteworthy chart entries around the globe.
Charlyn Marie ‘Chan’ Marshall was born in Atlanta, Georgia on January 21st 1972. A particularly fine year for births even if I do say so myself! Daughter of a blues musician and Jehovah’s Witness, her early life involved a lot of travelling, having to attend at least 10 different schools in the southern United States. Apparently she was not allowed to buy records when growing up but fortunately her family already had a good collection to discover, as diverse as Black Flag to Barry White.
A self-taught guitar player and pianist, Chan based her stage name on a cap that she saw someone wearing that read “Cat Diesel Power”. Whether the fashion company was named after this same appendage was unclear at the time of writing. She moved to New York in 1992 and recorded her first two albums Dear Sir/Myra Lee with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, the first in a long line of noteworthy musicians she has collaborated with.
In 1996 she signed to Matador Records, releasing What Would The Community Think, this time produced by Shelley. This album showcased a more ‘mature’ sound and started to garner press attention. Moon Pix was released in 1998, recorded in Australia with help from members of the Dirty Three. This album Rolling Stone described as her ‘breakthrough’ record. A covers album followed in 2000, called not unstrangely, The Covers Record. This led on to an album of new material that first brought Chan to my attention in 2003 with You Are Free. This one was recorded with Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl and Warren Ellis. With such luminaries on board, press coverage was compulsive. In the UK especially, you could not pick up a magazine or listen to Indie radio stations without coming across mention of this somewhere.
So there was a lot of expectation in certain circles when The Greatest was released in 2006. This album was recorded in Memphis and as you might ascertain from the city in question, featured musicians that had played with classic soul legends such as Al Green, Booker T and Aretha Franklin. There is certainly a ‘soul’ sensibility that permeates throughout the whole album, an easy laid back feel that at times can annoy as well as excite. A polished sheen that rounds off the rougher edges and gives the album a sort of ‘torch singer’ feel. This is definitely an album for a late night, drink in hand or wandering around moonlit streets, preferably out of the rain.
The album itself consists of twelve songs, ranging from sparse piano led tracks with minimal instrumentation, to full blown guitars, strings, horns and backing singers. Don’t be fooled by that description though, the instrumentation when ‘full’ is never overblown. There is a stunning minimal complexity to the arrangements here, which is an awful sentence to have to write but so true. The power of this album lies in the subtle waves of the ebb and flow of the interplay between voices and instruments. The album never stops sounding like one person’s vision, and as if the recorded world is in perfect sync with that vision. It is this combination that provides such rich listening. Every time you listen to it you can pick up something different that will delight your senses.
Have a listen to the wonderful “Living Proof”. The gentle swing of the piano led rhythm over the intial drum beat. Then the horns fill out the sound adding an extra warmth. Then comes Chan’s breathy vocals, controlled emotion personified, aided and abetted with the double tracking of her voice. Now repeat, adding layer upon layer of subtle variations, topped off with a glorious soul keyboard sound. The bass minimal and light throughout but with a wonderfully playful vibe. When this connects it is like listening to musical honey.
It is this subtleness that at times can also be a problem. When not in the mood to peel back the layers of sound production, this album can appear a little bland at times…as if listening to something that has been made by committee to appeal to a mass audience. You can put this album on and if in completely the wrong mood sometimes wonder what you saw in it in the first place. If this ever happens you are probably best playing some of the earlier albums, especially if you want a rawer feel.
Make no bones about it though, this is a great album and still stands up well ten years down the line. An album that you can abandon your senses to, yet still hear something new, but can also infuriate you when in the wrong mood. Sounds like the perfect life partner to me! That is after all what you want in a ‘classic’ album. If it was perfect you would soon become bored. If you have never heard it check it out. If you have, stick it on the turntable one more time and remind yourself why you bought it in the first place.