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Tuesday, September 04, 2012

REVIEW: Cat Power - Sun


Cat Power - Sun
Label: Matador Records
Release Date: September 4th, 2012

In a career that’s been as tumultuous as it has been successful, the story of Chan Marshall and Cat Power is not one of storybook endings or delightful twists. Filled mostly with sideways life lessons on management, relationship and anxiety, Marshall has been shy about talking about exactly what has plagued her since her debut in 1995. Recent interviews and appearances haven’t deviated from that reluctance, but it appears as though Marshall has finally found a way to balance her frantic lifestyle with her endless talent.

Since hiring a business manager after the release of The Greatest, a decision she dismissed for years, eventually putting her into crisis, Marshall has been more free than ever. It’s actually the assistance that allowed her to step away from the constant struggle to keep the industry, and creditors, at bay, an ironic twist for a woman who prides herself on leading such a carefree and wistful existence. And what a wise decision it has been to remove herself from the periphery of life, a reestablishment of vows with the medium she became famous for. Sun is a powerful, magnetic and triumphant record that finds Marshall as in command as she has ever been, embracing her inspirations instead of settling on what was expected.

Marshall has talked in recent interviews about a moment years ago, in the early stages of what would eventually become Sun, when she showed the album to a good friend. The response was apparently, “this is like depressing old Cat Power.” Internally, Marshall loathed this answer, and eventually retreated for three quarters of a year as a consequence of hearing it. Without fully understanding what those words meant to her, it would seem as though Marshall had a sort of realization that she wasn’t being true to herself in her music, that what was inside of her was something more upbeat or emotional than “depressing old Cat Power.” Cue “Cherokee,” the first track on the album, a masterful number that helps set the tone for the rest of Sun, really the attitude with which Marshall now carries herself. Her vocals sound lathered in a dozen different whiskeys, whispering and enchanting on the first verse. Backed immediately by an echoing guitar, it sounds like a typical, slow-burning Cat Power track, but then “Cherokee” bursts into a flurry of hip-hop inspired kicks on the chorus, a pattern so unlike anything Marshall has done to date and so completely refreshing. “SIlent Machine,” marked by a marching, gritty guitar, is another example of this shift, akin to something Dan Auerbach or Jack White might produce. The steady rattle of a tambourine resonates throughout, and with Marshall’s voice as loud as ever, Sun takes the form of a rock album.

It’s a step that so few artists are willing to take. To try something new, to completely bend the rules of your art and expectations, especially with a life’s work already catalogued behind her, the way Marshall so abruptly shifts gears on Sun deserves praise for the effort alone. But the change isn’t a mere gimmick or an experimental fling. It's also a resounding success. “3,6,9” is the pinnacle of this movement, finding Marshall’s vocals masked behind auto-tune and a massive, bouncing, guitar-led chorus. Instead of hiding in negative space as she did with Moon Pix, The Greatest and other championed efforts, “3,6,9” and its final refrain of “fuck me, fuck me” showcases the brash, aggressive nature of this new look. She's talked for years about the confidence of a Mary J. Blige and other R&B and hip-hop artists, and how that’s a genre she enjoys on a personal level; there’s no denying that it shows on Sun.

And maybe that’s what is so special about Sun, that an artist as emotionally stirring as Cat Power, a songwriter who has inspired the tears of so many listeners, has been misleading us - and perhaps herself - this whole time. “The world is just beginning,” Marshall sings on the expansive, ten minute “Nothin But Time.” While Sun is certainly not the beginning for Cat Power, it might just be the beginning of Marshall’s most honest and provocative work. Sun is simply a risky and triumphant record worthy of praise on so many different levels, but the way in which Marshall has embraced her personal inspirations on the album is what makes it unique. If nothing else, Marshall finally seems at peace with her life, and for that I congratulate her. And for this paradigm shift of a record, I applaud her.

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