October 3, The Knitting Factory, NYC
There’s never a dishonest moment in Chan Marshall’s singing, and her voice, with its whispery ache, cast the spell it always does when I heard her at the Knitting Factory Thursday night. But I wish she gave a shit about performing. What could be nerves, shyness or maybe indifference (who knows? She’s always called the most enigmatic songwriter on the scene) makes her derail many performances I’ve seen in various self-defeating ways. She seems remote from the audience, almost crooning to herself at times, but her concentration is fitful, so she doesn’t get lost inside the music long enough to let us get lost in it too. Segueing from one song to another without a break, Marshall often doesn’t finish the song she segues from. A restless roughing up of the chords midway through signals her discomfort or boredom with the current number and prefaces a switch to something else. It keeps you on edge, listening to this restlessness, and at times Thursday night it felt like we were watching her rehearse.
Her opening number had all the elements of a great Cat Power song – it was a new original, I think, though she never explains the songs – and it seemed to pick up from Moon Pix to add to her unconventional rock canon. The lyrics went: “The last time I saw you, you were throwing your guitar around the stage, you were in a rage, and I didn’t blame you.” Everything about the song was good – her supple, perfectly-in-tune voice, the lyrics, the melody that leaped around, the repeated rhymes of rage and stage. It was good to hear rage even mentioned in a Cat Power song. She needs more rage.
But the set, the first half of which she performed on the piano, went on to a series of quieter and quieter numbers, often in the same key and rhythm. Many had the feel of “Paths of Victory” from The Covers Record – that plain 2-4 beat, the simple chords. It was hard to tell if they were covers or not, but these songs lacked the creative complexity of her guitar songs. When she did strap on her guitar, someone yelled out “Rock and roll!” but Marshall remained in the hushed, whispery mood that she had started out in. She did do a torqued-up version of Blue Moon that I liked a lot, but even her commitment to that song seemed in doubt by the end. When her commitment wanes, ours weakens.
“I just want to hear her really let go and sing,” someone on the sidewalk was saying when I went outside for air, but when we all went back in, she was still singing softly and pulling her head back from the mike to weaken the volume of the occasional strong note. That heartfelt yell of hers, which has lit up songs like “King Rides By” and “Nude as the News,” was just not in evidence.
It’s still astonishing listening to her use her voice in its quiet mode. The way she drops down on a note and underscores it with the note of accompaniment, whether a plucked guitar string or pressed piano key, has such a delicacy and grace that you listen in awe. I wondered if she’s becoming mainly a chanteuse, an interpreter. I couldn’t sense a new batch of originals that would equal the tour de force of Moon Pix – instead, some of the songs were so simple they were just plain dull. But her soft voice caresses the melodies and the wistful ache is always there.
If she concentrated on a beautiful vocal rendition of each song, we wouldn’t need anything else. But that would mean devoting herself to each song as a separate entity, singing every note, and letting the song end like songs do end. Her refusal to end the songs feels like a denial of the act of performance – applause would remind her that there’s an audience out there.
The terrible shyness that keeps her hidden, not just behind her long dark hair but also in intangible ways, makes me wonder if performing is so excruciating for Marshall that she might want to give it up, like XTC’s Andy Partridge famously did. But if she does perform, some bargain has to be struck between the need and ability to sing gorgeously, and the self-destructive urge that chokes the songs off halfway through, cuts off the audience’s ability to respond and ultimately estranges even adoring fans.