Friday, December 8, 2006

"We can all be free, maybe not with words, maybe not with a look, but with your mind"

#16 You Are Free, Cat Power, Matador, 2003

I can never forget the first time I heard Cat Power. Bowman had just set me up with a pre-wedding mixtape in the summer of 1999 and its varied and eccentric sounds both challenged and enlivened my emo-rock disposition. Perhaps the greatest shock to the system was a bizarre, off-kilter slow jazz and guitar number with whispery, angelic female vocals. Nestled as it was among Bowman's choice of jitter electronica and screamo outfit punk, it stood out big time. That and the fact that the words seemed to come straight from the Muse's lips settled it for me: I had a new favorite artist. The song was "Metal Heart" and the artist, of course, was Cat Power. Not long after we were married, I got Sarah a copy of Moon Pix for her birthday and our obsession with Chan Marshall was on.

While 2002's Covers Record was solid (and will no doubt appear on my wife's list at some point), it didn't speak to me in the same way Moon Pix did. In late 2002, though, a pre-release track of an upcoming full-length on Matador's website sent me into hysterics. "He War," which still might be my favorite track off the record, sounded unlike other Cat Power I had heard. First of all, there were real drums, rocking even, and clear, forceful Chan vocals. Upon reading that Dave Grohl was the guest drummer for the record and that Eddie Vedder contributed background vocals for a few tracks, it seemed that this would be Cat Power's greatest record yet (a distinction Marshall seemed to want to overcome with the name of her newest record). When I finally got the record in early 2003, I was working as a barrista at Bean Traders, a vocation that involved the ability to share your music with the bean addicted clientele. You Are Free got heavy rotation, so heavy in fact that I can actually smell roasting coffee whenever "Shaking Paper" comes on.

Musically, You Are Free is much more straightforward than previous Cat Power records. Gone are the feedback-y edginess of What Would the Community Think and the jazzy experimentality of Moon Pix. Instead, Chan focuses on more traditional band accompaniment for half the record, and Covers Record style lo-fi solo efforts on the other half. Opener "I Don't Blame You," an homage to Kurt Cobain, radically encapsulates the momentary exuberance of Nirvana's performance within the subdued confines of a percussive piano progression and layered chorus vocal. Acoustic and bass drum anthem "Free" enjoins the listener to live and let love in the club while "Speak for Me" uses Grohl on drums and bass to ask for help in interpreting volition in a new, confusing world. Emotive piano ballad "Names" chronicles the lives of abused children in Chan's past in a chilling manner by highlighting the ages of their victimizations. "Maybe Not" offers, after Moon Pix's "Metal Heart," perhaps the best example of Cat Power's ability to offer hope in the face of an unforgiving reality: "You've got to choose a wish or command if the turn of the tide is weathering thee/remember one thing, a dream you can see, pray it to be, shake this land."

Such hopefulness and consolation surely comes from an inspired place considering Chan's reoccurring problems with alcoholism and depression, which have not only caused her to collapse more than once on tour, but also have blighted her live performances for years. Sarah and I had the privilege of seeing her at the Carrboro Arts Center in early 2002, and it was a rare intimate and brilliant performance. But, a year later, seeing her at Cat's Cradle after You Are Free had come out was a disaster - she kept interrupting songs, complaining to the sound person, and mumbling incoherently. It was sad and frustrating. After that point, I vowed never to see her again in person (though since then she has evidently gone through treatment and therapy and is now performing very successfully, even on Letterman, a feat unimaginable just a few years ago). It is certainly a testament to her art that despite such performing disappointments in the past, her music can still move me from the depths of the speakers.

1 comment:

ATrain said...

i just thought no post should be without a comment: Agreed, this album kicks it and "He War" scrambles my brain.

Also, unfortunately it is beginning to look like Cat Power will be one of those artists who actually do their best work while alcoholics...sobering up kills the muse, i suppose.