Cat Power Channels Dusty Springfield: The Greatest
This is the first of the posts I promised on 2 April, and the subject this time out is Cat Power, the stage name of Chan Marshall. In my musical social life, I was a latecomer to her party, showing up in 2003, around the time You Are Free was released. While I had somewhat fanatical friends who kept raving about how great she was, they weren’t necessarily ones whose tastes matched mine. Or, more clearly, they weren’t folks who I trusted the way I trust my pal Jeff, who, from Brian Eno to Nick Cave to Jenny Lewis, has never steered me wrong. When I started finally listening to her on the radio, though, I felt that I had been missing something. Alongside the quirky indie edginess of the songs and their dark lyrical undercurrents, there was a voice that almost seemed too smoky, too pretty for the music. Almost. Her voice was, in fact, the perfect complement for the music she and her varied collaborators put together. On the strength of You Are Free, I started exploring her back catalog, eventually buying (and loving) Moon Pix, The Covers Record, and, just a few days ago, What Would the Community Think.
Much has been said about the way her current album, The Greatest, was conceived and recorded. To wit, she went to Memphis to work with Teenie and Leroy Hodges, famed for their work with producer Willie Mitchell on a number of releases by Hi Records in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including several by Al Green. Where a lot of the commentary on the record has reflected the opinion that this record has some sort of indie-rock-meets-seventies-R&B sound, I think those comments miss the mark. There is another Memphis-related recording that I think is a better comparison: Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis. For evidence, just listen to the second track, “Living Proof.” The openness of the drum sound (you can hear the space in the subtle reverberation of the snare and hi-hat cymbals) and the seeming simplicity of the bass, organ, piano groove both put me back in Dusty-land (and, for that matter, Tom Dowd- and Arif Mardin-land). And the usual silky vulnerability in her delivery here gives way at times to a defiant confidence, especially with the last line. While the Cat Power recording is definitely less glossy than its counterpart (and gloss, by the way, isn’t a bad thing), it inhabits the same sort of territory in that it is a recording that is just as ideal for listening late at night with the lights out as it is for easing into Sunday morning.
While I was digging the CD from the moment I heard the piano, tremolo guitar, string intro of the opening, title track, the song that most struck me on the first listen was “Willie.” Like “Living Proof,” it reminded me of Dusty Springfield. Marshall’s smoky lead vocal is complemented by her higher-register background vocals. The arrangement is wonderfully spacious—not because there’s an excess of reverberation, but because it features uncomplicated interlocking parts that contribute to a loping groove: David Smith’s languid bassline, piano chords on 2 and 4 and an understated drum pattern provide a bed for the occasional guitar flourish (deep in the right speaker) and saxophone work (on the left). By far the longest song on the album, this one is still my favorite. Close behind it is the song that follows: “Where Is My Love.” As I hear it, it again shows the value in arranging via subtraction. There could be so much more in the arrangement, beyond the piano and strings, but having anything more would detract from the sentiment. Listening to the instrumental sounds and her vocalizations, you might find yourself wondering where your love is, even if the answer to that question is perfectly clear.
I could go on enumerating the charms of this CD, but I’ll cut to the chase. If you’ve never heard Cat Power, you should buy this CD. If you have heard her and have been put off by how macabre and dark some of her previous work has sounded, put those thoughts behind you and buy this CD. Your ears, your late nights and your Sunday mornings will all thank you.