Cat Power – The Greatest

Cat Power - The GreatestCat PowerThe Greatest (Matador)

You don’t need to know anything about Chan Marshall’s antics—her breakdown on stage in New York seven years ago, her angry and defensive interview with Pitchfork, etc—to know what kind of stability she has. One needs only to listen to her catalog, a collection of melancholic and minimalist folk. In all of her works, specifically of late, albums took that base and incorporated other essences—lounge piano, jazz, sharp guitar patterns. The Greatest, her seventh record and fifth for Matador, finds Marshall returning home.

Featuring famed Hi Records studio musicians Teenie and Flick Hodges and a host of other acclaimed players from the Golden Memphis era, The Greatest seductively saunters through a smoky bar. Marshall’s songs retain their intimacy and discreetness, and are now textured with Memphis horns and inebriated string arrangements.

It’s untrue that music has to be “cinematic” to evoke imagery—The Greatest is all sepia-toned tumbleweed depression and whiskey sours. A slow piano arrangement opens the album on the title track before an ethereal wave of back-tracked guitar inconspicuously rolls in. Soon, Marshall begins her croon of lost dreams and regret. This subject matter is inherent in all of her works, but is encapsulated in the album’s first line: “Once I wanted to be / The greatest…” (mp3). A chorus of background vocals eerily overlap the last two words, but Marshall tempers the sadness of the entire album with a romantic sensibility. Depression without hope is just sad—Marshall remains wistful despite the austere surface, this adds the depth and quixotic fancy that prevents her music from falling into the same boring cry-a-thon territory of, say, Beck’s Sea Change.

Marshall’s voice is undeniably original—weak, fragile, and hazy with a brassy timbre and drawl to match her roots. The arrangements behind it are reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies of classic Al Green, pared down and slowed to match Marshall’s style. The album, as such, plays out like a singer performing lost Stax classics in a dim lounge. This makes sense—the album was recorded at Stax alternate studio Ardent, where Big Star and Dylan have also recorded.

The influx of creativity in modern music has caused artists to be nomadic in style and substance—career arcs bear more resemblance to sine waves than an actual arc. So it’s refreshing that some people remain constant and consistent. Like the rest of her material, The Greatest is sturdy and unfailing. Predictability isn’t necessarily a negative quality—there is comfort in knowing what to expect from a Cat Power album 11 years into her career, and yet the formula isn’t tired. Especially after 2005, which saw a lack of new material from familiar artists in favor of up-and-comers, it’s nice to open the new year with something equally new and old from one of our favorite songwriters.

16 thoughts on “Cat Power – The Greatest”

  1. The Pitchfork review of this was worthless. The same reviewer would probably dismiss “Dusty In Memphis” as having “too many strings.”

    I named “Moon Pix” as my favorite album of 1997, but “The Greatest” is hands-down her best album yet. Click on my name if you’d like to see my own review of this from last month.

  2. so does the album have soul? I guess that’s what I really haven’t picked up from the reviews. A Cat Power song with soul would grab me hook line and sinker but I feel like most of her songs, while beautiful, are kind of cold.

  3. What is soul? I don’t know. Soul is a hamhock in your cornflakes. Soul is the ring around your bathtub. Soul is a joint rolled in toilet paper.

  4. Lack-of-soul is easier to define. ‘Sterility’ seems like an obvious adjective. I don’t know if Cat Power’s new CD has soul, even if her MySpace entry classifies her as such. One could argue that the genre “soul” is much different from “having soul.” As much as I like the CD, I skip around to the rawer tracks. Some sound overproduced. I’d venture to say that, say, MoonPix has more soul than this, but then again, you have a song like “Hate” that makes you think twice. If you ask me, the entire CD is worth “Hate.” Cat Power has soul, does “The Greatest?” I don’t know. The original question seems like an odd one.

  5. i won’t hazzard into the debate of whether it has soul or not. all i know is that i’ve been living with this album for the past week because it’s really grabbed me in a way no album has in a long while. walk the dog, it’s on the ipod, cooking dinner, on the stereo, on the train to work it’s on the ipod again. i actually like the “overproduced” songs (actually, a little more production being brought to a cat power album is a good thing in my eyes.). i would say it’s her most accomplished album to date. does that mean it’s her best? well, that’s a subjective thing for others to debate. it’s a good album. the most mature album she’s put out to date. and one that shows her gradually trying out new things. i would highly recommend it.

  6. my only real gripe with The Greatest is that I was expecting a Solomon Burke type soul record with tons of horns and a real noticable groove. knowing the players she had accompanying her throughout the record, i dont think that was an unrealistic expectation. with that said, i still love the record.

  7. I’m digging it so far – tempering Cat Power with a extra production and a little sugar is not a bad thing at all.

  8. Does this album have soul? No, not really, not in the Oits Redding sense.

    But it’s damn good anyway. She sings in the kind of detached mode we’re used to. But it’s not completely cold, like say Beck’s Sea Change. And the mood fits the songs. Plus its “warmed up” so to speak by some nice arrangement and horns and strings and such. Which is all subtly and beautifully done. To call it overproduced sets the bar very low for “production.”

    In short, it’s not a Memphis imitation record. It’s a Cat Power goes to Memphis record.

    And it’s fantastic. Give it a listen. Best album I’ve heard so far this year.

  9. To be honest, I think it does have “soul.” And I think all of her music does. It may not be “soul music,” but it’s got “soul.” Prime example: at the beginning of “Could We,” when Chan switches after the second line “Could we…have a talk,” and then bravely cuts from that swinging little rhythm to the minor key progression that follows. Very soulful.

  10. 02/06/06 — US tour canceled

    “We regret to announce that Cat Power’s entire US tour has been canceled due to health reasons. Out of respect for Chan’s privacy, we can’t give more detailed information, but we hope and assume that you’ll respect her privacy during this time as well.”

    Too bad, I was looking forward to checking this out.

  11. Let’s see – Chan Marshall has the spirit of a prizefighter, the gutsy voice of a hollowing wind, and the by-gone era insight that allows her to express poems through folk ballads with a heavy list toward that sinking feeling. She welcomes fear as a friend, would black your eye for an off-cuff comment in a bar, then take you out for a home-cooked meal. Does any of that sound like soul?

  12. She does have a publicist, pretty much every band ever discussed has a publicist…

    That said, “Willie” off the album is heartbreakingly filled with soul. Man, it’s Al Green, make you cry, kind of soul.

  13. ummm, i vaguely remember reading in a recent interview in Harp that stated that she didnt have a publicist. but i could be wrong, or maybe i am right?

  14. Well, I work in the music business and the pr firm Beggar’s Group handles all the pr for every release on Matador, Beggar’s, 4AD, Too Pure and I think a couple other labels. Check the site:

    It’s no big deal, it’s just a person that makes sure the press gets copies of her new record and hopefully review and possibly interview them. The good folks at Harp set their interview up with the help of a publicist.

Leave a Reply