Directed by Jim Jarmusch. From Covers, out now on Domino.
I originally heard the Pogues on tapes that a friend had dubbed for me. With no liner notes, I had no idea which songs were originals and which were traditional. I assumed most of the material was punked up versions of Irish standards. It was a thrill to find a Clancy Brothers record in the 99-cent bin, and their version of “Whiskey You’re the Devil” made great mixtape fodder, especially followed up by the Pogues’ “Streams of Whiskey” (a Shane MacGowan original, it turns out).
MacGowan has always written material that sounds like it’s been around forever, like he’s plucked timeless material out of the ether. Chan Marshall has a similar ability to make her covers her own and to write original songs that seem like they could be interpretations of classics.
And now beloved indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has directed the video for Cat Power’s latest single.
Jarmusch says, “As someone who deeply loves Cat Power’s music, getting to collaborate with Chan on this video was like a dream come true. She’s so inspiring to me, of course as an artist, but she’s also just such an extraordinary person.”
Nobody covers a song like Chan Marshall. And she knows it. Covers will be the third Cat Power collection of cover songs after The Covers Record (2000) and Jukebox (2008). Having two albums in your discography named The Covers Record and Covers may suggest a lack of creativity or imagination, but the originality of the performances and the eclecticism of the song selections more than make up for it.
This time around she’s taking on a tune by an Oscar-nominated actor’s side project band. “Pa Pa Power” was originally written by Ryan Gosling and his pal Zach Shields and recorded with a children’s choir. As laughable as this concept sounds in theory, it received good reviews and is actually pretty cool sounding. Way better than Johnny Depp’s band.
Marshall says: “I started playing this solo in 2012 (originally more dissonant and trance-y), when the Occupy Wall street protests were going on. Occupy was bunkering down and saying, ‘This shit’s fucking fucked up.’ And helping citizens be a voice in their local government. They got a lot of good things done, but the American media killed the movement. I felt like this song was relative to that. The American media has always penalized any sort of social progressiveness and is always the first to express conservative rhetoric against something that is beneficial to the nation. I’d open with this song on the 2013 China tour. ‘Burn the streets, burn the cars.’”
Directed by Greg Hunt. From Wanderer, out now on Domino.
Chan Marshall is back with another single from Wanderer. “Horizon” can be seen as something of a Mother’s Day message, all about the power of the close family unit. Even when — or maybe especially when — you’re not all together.
Mother, I wanna hold your hand
Father, I need you to be a man
Sister, if there’s any help in me, I’m always on my way
Take care of your family, everybody. Even when — or maybe especially when — they’re driving you crazy. They’re not going to be around forever.
Cat Power - Woman (feat. Lana Del Rey) (Official Video)
Directed by Greg Hunt. From Wanderer, due October 5 on Domino Record Co.
Chan Marshall is a badass. This is her first new music since 2012’s Sun and it was worth the wait. “Woman” features everything we love about Cat Power: spooky instrumentation, moody vocals, intimidating lyrics.
The doctor said I was better than ever
Man, you should have seen me
Doctor said I was not my past
He said I was finally free
What more could you ask for? Backing vocals by Lana Del Rey? You got it!
The story goes that when Chan Marshall set off to begin the follow up to the very hard to follow up The Greatest, she presented her progress to a friend. She could tell that the new material didn’t grab her friend in quite the manner that she hoped, and after some additional probing, the friend declared that the new songs sounded pretty much like any other Car Power song.
And Chan Marshall was tired of sounding like the “old” Cat Power.
More power to her--pun intended--as the process of avoiding stagnation has given rock and roll some of its best moments.
It has also given it some of its worst, and the risk for epic failure gets greater when artists begin to incorporate other styles and genres that are way beyond their limits. For example: Bob Mould may be a fine dj on the weekends, but that doesn’t mean he makes a mean EDM record.
More to the point, it doesn’t mean that I want to hear a Bob Mould EDM album either. I want my musical heroes to be brave enough to listen to that bit of self-doubt in their heads that says, “Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this.”
Chan Marshall shouldn’t be making records like Sun, plain and simple. That’s my opinion, and it comes from the same one that thinks The Greatest was a risky album on its own. It, and to a lesser extent Jukebox, positioned Chan into promising new direction. Instead, she has now squandered that promise into a half-baked record of songs that seem to insinuate that the recording session for Sun was nothing more than one big distraction.
There are beats, rhythms, vocoders, beeps, and other creations that seem to be the result of a shopping spree in the electronics area of Guitar Center. There’s no rhyme or reason to when and why these sounds are introduced in a song, so you’re left to assume that shit just kept getting added on until Chan finally had the empathy to say “Stick a fork in it. It’s done.”
The nonsense starts early. The opener, “Cherokee,” gradually brings the listeners into Chan’s left turn, starting with a shimmering guitar before the manufactured beats make their entrance.
And you know what? It’s ok for a moment. When Chan mutters “Never knew love like this,” she sounds like she’s on the other end of a dial-up internet connection. Big beats come in and things get a little shaky, but again, Marshall hides it with a great chorus of repeated “Marry me to the sky,” bringing a bit of a lyrical connection with the song title.
Then, at exactly 3:05 into “Cherokee,” the sound of a fucking hawk or some other bird comes in. Immediately, I was like “What the fuck was that?!”
I quickly rewound and discovered the truth, and it was at that moment that I decided that I didn’t like the new Cat Power album.
The title track is just an overloaded mess of processed vocals and I’ve even started to lose interest into the briefly infectious lead-off single, “Ruin.”
My wife, who owns quite a large collection of Glee product, declares “3, 6, 9” as “strangely good” while it only makes me say, “I see what you did there!” What Marshall comes up with is a hooky bit of prose that repeats ad infinitum.
The darker moments are the best, and they will be the only moments that I’ll end up leaving in my playlist after this review posts. “Always On My Own” and “Human Being” are harrowing tales, but it’s “Manhattan” that serves as the best interpretation of Marshall’s desire to be different.
With it’s cheesy drum machine and simple, four-step piano phrase, Marshall double-tracks her voice with an emotive lead over her trademarked low-end mumble. “Don’t look at the moon tonight,” she warns “It will never be Manhattan.”
How can I stay mad at a line like that? I can’t, but I can leave off a good chunk of Sun and wonder if this is the work of a woman who’s heart isn’t in it anymore. Because Sun sounds more like an obligation, if you ask me, with each and every electronic addition seemingly introduced to cover up the fact that the album has very little heart behind it.
It is a record that began with a notion that it needed to be different, when it should have been looked at as a record that needed to be better than The Greatest.
I had a bad attitude about Lollapalooza this year. I was not looking forward to it at all. I’ve covered Lollapalooza for Glorious Noise each year since the festival was resurrected in Chicago in 2005. Between Lolla and Forkfest, I was thinking I might just be festivaled out.
My wife’s advice as I left on Friday: “Don’t be old—be fun.”
Which sounds a lot harder than it actually turned out to be. Once I let go of some of my uptightness and decided to just roll with it, I ended up having a great weekend. Free your mind, and your ass will follow, right? Surprisingly, I think the lack of bands that I needed to see helped me relax and just enjoy myself.
Not to say that there weren’t a ton of great bands playing this year. There were, but I’ve seen most of them recently. At Lollapalooza two years ago. Or at Pitchfork last year. Or both.
I think it is important to begin this review by admitting that I have more jpeg images on my hard drive of Chan Marshall than I do of my wife. Now before you label me as a creepy fanboy, understand that I’ve only been married a year now, had my laptop for nearly four years, and been a fan of Cat Power for even longer. I would also like to point out that pictures of my kids trump the jpeg totals of my wife and Chan by a long shot.
After this, you’re probably assuming that I’m going to loft a heapin’ helpin’ of praise on Marshall’s second collection of covers, Jukebox, and my friends, you’d be absolutely correct. However, I do believe that I’m able to discern my infatuation with the aural reality that Jukebox is a brave collection of remakes that continues to reaffirm how Marshall has become one of the consummate voices of her generation.
Friday night was a fun bonus, but the real festival started on Saturday. That’s when the place filled up with perfectly unkempt indie kids, all the vendors were in full effect, and they kept scruffs like me out of the VIP section.
The importance of the weather cannot be overstated. When it’s hot as balls like it had been for the previous two Fork Fests, it becomes hard to drink the Goose Island beer and revolting to get too close to other sweaty people. When it’s over 100 and humid as hell, you need an American-style light lager. In fact, you need a lot of them. And you have to wear shorts even if your legs are pasty.
But when it’s mid-70s and breezy, you can wear jeans if you want, you can drink good beer, and you can work your way through a thick crowd occasionally bumping into a scantily clad young person without immediately being covered in stank. You can even eat Chipotle. Why not?
I was somewhere around Indio, in the apex of the desert, when Tommy Lee kicked in. As I walked through the manicured grass, happily eating corn on the cob, the thin and dust-caked Motley Crue drummer ran up to me, weaving his arms and torso in a spastic model of the Axl Rose snake dance. I continued gnawing on the corn, and flicked my eyes upward in annoyance. He chuckled and regrouped with his bleached-blonde entourage to continue down the field, toward the throbbing bass of Daft Punk.
Even without the icky hair-metal run-ins, this year’s Coachella Festival still would have been the strangest one yet. The cultural oasis of the Colorado Desert (held May 29-30) featured a predictably strong lineup of eclectic indie artists but, pivotally, an additional interest in capturing the mainstream crowd. From Kanye West’s shining ego on Saturday to Madonna’s short-and-skanky dance tent appearance Sunday, the indie snob’s once-safe haven was taken over by squealing strangers – and two sold-out days later, it’s hard to tell whether Coachella will continue down the beaten pop path.
Whatever. For the most part, Coachella still retained its joyous communal atmosphere, a kaleidoscopic place where alternative art reigns and nobody knows your name. (And there are celebrities under every rock.) For me, it was The End: the final fling before graduation, the last irresponsible trip with my best friends. But it was also the beginning, as I discovered thanks to some artists, some new opportunities, and a chance meeting with my very own Yoda, though taller and with some ketchup in his beard.
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.