December 3, 2007

UP FROM THE CRADLE:

Wonder Woman: Chan Marshall’s transformation (Sasha Frere-Jones December 10, 2007, The New Yorker)

The singer and songwriter Chan Marshall performs under an alias—Cat Power—with superhero connotations, but she sometimes struggles simply to get through a concert. She was born Charlyn Marie Marshall, in Georgia, and began appearing in clubs in Atlanta, in the late eighties, while she was still in her teens. I first saw her play in 1995, at a now defunct club called the Cooler, in New York’s meatpacking district. She performed alone, seated, with a black-and-white Danelectro guitar. Light-brown bangs covered much of her face, and she slouched, wearily, as if she were entering the fourth hour of an interrogation. When she spoke, she sounded drunk and disoriented. Occasionally, her bangs would swing away from her face, revealing freckles, a heart-shaped mouth, and clear brown eyes. Her voice kept me from leaving; when she was audible, there was a palpable ache in her singing, as well as flashes of sharp, high tones. There were also uncomfortably generous silences. [...]

Marshall’s new album, “Jukebox,” which will be released in January, is an implicit sequel to “The Covers Record”: another collection of songs by others, plus two songs by Marshall. But where “The Covers Record” was relentlessly bare and almost claustrophobically focussed on her voice, “Jukebox” builds on the aesthetic that she began developing in “The Greatest.” The album features Marshall’s new group, Dirty Delta Blues, which includes several well-known indie-rock musicians—among them Jim White, of the Dirty Three, and Judah Bauer, of Blues Explosion—but the music is still Southern soul, albeit slowed down and deformed. The opening track is a cover of “New York, New York”; the melody and the chords have been upended, and the music sounds like a slack version of an Otis Redding song. If you don’t listen closely to the words, you probably wouldn’t recognize the song. Marshall has eliminated Liza Minnelli’s and Frank Sinatra’s bravado and substituted a sure-footed sense of delight.

Still, the album drags in places, whereas “The Greatest” snapped and burned. Marshall’s voice and the band members’ instruments have been mixed with an unusual amount of echo; sometimes the effect evokes an empty club at 3 A.M., but sometimes it seems to sap energy from the performances. The album’s highlight is Marshall’s version of James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” a slow dance that she allows to build to a peak without ever overreaching or trying to shout herself out of the heartbreak. “Never go to strangers, come on home to me,” she chants, first in a low murmur and later in a cry, neither particularly anguished. Marshall could not have conquered a song this blunt and desperate in her youth. But, now that she knows better who she is, perhaps she’s less afraid of losing herself.


Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2007 9:34 AM
Comments

I liked the Covers record. I will have to check this out.

Posted by: ted welter at December 3, 2007 10:39 AM
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