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Tuesday, 28 August 2012 07:00

Album review: Cat Power smolders and finds the sweet 'Sun' spot

Album review: Cat Power smolders and finds the sweet 'Sun' spot
Written by Erin Frank
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Cat Power
"Sun"
Matador

Chan Marshall has a reputation for being an unpredictable performer, and paying to see a Cat Power show is a little bit like hedging your bets in favor of Guns N' Roses or Van Halen.

On the one hand, it could be a transcendental experience that blows your head wide open with the kind of stuff you've loved since you were a kid or wish you had the brain capacity to create; but on the other, it could be a sloppy, poorly-orchestrated mess that, when repeated enough times, becomes the kind of legend that an artist never seems to outrun.

The complication about Cat Power is that it all seems at least a little bit drunk, and this is what makes it so good. Marshall's drowsy, soul-inspired vocals amble across comely melodies, her breathy (and sometimes breathless) delivery skirting the edge between Stevie Nicks and Dusty Springfield, a tableau of expensive French cigarettes and hard water-stained wineglasses. Even when making cover albums -- like 2000's "The Covers Record" or 2008's spectacular "Jukebox" -- Marshall doesn't just sing, she compels.

The challenge, then, is to retain an amount of focus. Marshall is no good to anybody when she loses her way, that blushing vulnerability turned to clumsy aimlessness. She nailed her strengths on 2003's "You Are Free" and "Jukebox," but a scant few of her tracks and just enough of those legendary live performances lack definition. On "Sun," to be released by Matador on September 4, Marshall is agile and in control, expanding her lyrical talents and arranging the tempo and tone of her track listing like a sestina.

"Cherokee" and "Sun" are both atmospheric trips through a mellow electro lounge, the energy of this album not ratcheting up until the snappy piano intro of the third track, titled "Ruin." "Ruin" was the first single released from "Sun," mostly danceable with a chilling mezzo-soprano to cut the tension.

Marshall samples a portion of the chorus from Shirley Ellis' "The Clapping Song" for "3,6,9," the familiar rhythm quelled by her layered backing vocals and a stuttering guitar. Because Cat Power is Marshall herself, all vocals are hers and expertly mixed to create a careful dissonance. For example, Marshall's narration on "Always On My Own" is flinty compared to her aching singing voice, and neither detracts from the full effect.

Most of Marshall's youth was spent in the South and she has recorded there, so her voice and the themes of her songs are imbued with a Southern Gothic sensibility. Even on tracks like "Manhattan," the easygoing pace and hidden country rhythm speak to this and elevate the effort above one style or another. "Silent Machine," another track on "Sun," begins with a roadhouse guitar whine and a shaky, snaky tambourine -- with that panted line about how "Charlie is a sinner," it's the steamiest selection on this album.

"Sun" closes with "Peace and Love," a Laurel Canyon-esque jam that holds the most potential for one of those either/or Cat Power shows. If delivered as flawlessly as recorded on this album, though, Marshall is one stride closer to outrunning her reputation.

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