True story: the first time I ever really heard Cat Power was in a techno club in New York. It was a dirty basement, and all night the DJs had played nothing but dance music: gritty jack tracks, new-wavy German shit, house music that sucked the sweat out of the walls and plastered it back on the dancers. And then, there it was, unmistakable: the thumping kick drums and backhand snares fell away to reveal a vertiginous emptiness over which went sailing, as improbable as Wile E. Coyote in his blissfully ignorant strut in the moment before he plunges to earth in a burst of wind and dust, the opening chords from "Free," the second song from Chan Marshall's new album, You Are Free. Four bars of acoustic guitar chiming exactly in tempo with the last record played. Four tentatively ascending chords marking time as studiously as a Kompakt track.
There was perhaps the briefest pause in the room, a collective inhalation, and the dancefloor resumed with redoubled energy, pouring itself into Marshall's spooky, hollow self-harmonizations, setting its communal body clock to the snapping backbeat of the snare drum. Three minutes, 34 seconds of a buildup so excruciating it was sexual, stripping down to four chords and a ghost, waiting for a climax that never came. It was the most audacious dancefloor miscegenation I'd ever heard. Everyone in the room was reborn that night, bastards all.
Of course, I'm lying just a little: I've known and loved Cat Power's music for years, ever since I stumbled upon a strange 10-inch record called Dear Sir must've been 1995, maybe '96 that featured Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums and therefore, I figured, must be good. It was, and 1996's What Would the Community Think was even better (somehow I think I missed out on 1994's Myra Lee). Moon Pix (1998) hard to believe it's been five years now became one of my touchstones, a record that ran as clear and cutting as mountain water slicing down flat rock high above the treeline. Moon Pix felt like the source of something, almost formless in its strange naïveté. Again I can think of nothing but that high-country runoff, racing down slick rock in a bull run for the ocean, without benefit of the slightest groove to guide it, left only to the vagaries of slate and gravity's determination.
I realize that I'm pulling things out of thin air here, but Cat Power's music encourages that. Its freeform lyrics are about as referential as clouds, and its stubborn, stunted, almost myopic songwriting verse verse verse chorus verse verse verse chorus repeated over and over on plunking piano and arthritic guitar, without so much as a stray chord to hint at an escape route tends to conjure mirages amidst the tedium.
But that night on the dancefloor was the first time I ever heard the burn in Chan Marshall's icy, thin-air artistry. On You Are Free, the clear water roils, throwing the reflected sun into a smoldering illusion of hot coals as it carves its way into deeper, more unpredictable channels. There is a heat to these runaway songs that hasn't been there since the stark, stomping fuzz of the Dear Sir sessions; producer Adam Kasper (Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters) has caked Marshall's guitar in white ash and woodsmoke, spiking the sound with the ground glass of broken amplifier tubes.
It's not all quick combustion. Only two of the 14 songs here could be said to rock, or even to rollick: the aforementioned "Free," and then "He War," with the disconcerting, all-too-timely chorus, "Hey hey hey/ He war he war/ He will kill for you." The rest of the record eddies in oily, reverb-soaked pianos, slowly churning acoustic guitars, and minor-key country blues. As always, Marshall complements her own material with covers rendered in her own unmistakable voice. "Keep on Runnin'" wrests the tune from the hands of bluesman John Lee Hooker and molds it in the grip of Meredith Monk's overdubbed minimalism. "Werewolf" revisits Holy Modal Rounders songwriter Michael Hurley, whose "Sweedeedee" Marshall covered on 2000's The Covers Record; her cello-and-guitar arrangement of the gothic folk song ("The werewolf, the werewolf, has sympathy/ For the werewolf's somebody like you and me") is even rootsier and bleaker than "Sweedeedee."
Some people complain that Marshall's music is too bleak, too self-absorbed. But these are bleak days, and Marshall never veering remotely close to politics, even when armies march into her lyrics and war breaks out harvests anxiety, bringing forth songs that nestle like epiphytes in the branches of private and public crises alike. Her lyrics are as oblique as ever, thanks to her quirky circumlocutions, but there's a shadow of biography hanging over them. When she opens the album with "I Don't Blame You" "Last time I saw you, you were on stage/ Your hair was wild, your eyes were red/ And you were in a rage/ You were swinging your guitar around/ 'Cause they wanted to hear that sound/ But you didn't want to play/ And I don't blame you" it's impossible not to think of Marshall's own infamous stage anxiety. And while she's tight-lipped about the subject of the song, the presence of Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder on the album evokes the specter of the Seattleite who forsook the stage for a shotgun marriage with oblivion.
"Names" shows Marshall at her most straightforward, spieling off a shortlist of the disappeared, childhood friends who fell victim to abusive fathers, sexual predators, crack cocaine. Pushpins in the map of Marshall's peripatetic history, they emerge from the bare-bones song as unadorned as faces on milk cartons before disappearing back into the wake of her piano's delay pedal.
It takes a while for some of the details to soak in. Vedder's baritone harmony on "Evolution" that trails Marshall's voice like a club-footed shadow. The strange '80s flange effect on the guitars of "He War," dated but strangely persuasive. The children's choir on "Good Woman," turning the country lament into a weird, illegitimate offspring of the Langley Schools Project.
Ultimately, though, after all the effects and careful arrangements, this could be stripped back to the a cappellas and lose nothing of its intensity. Marshall's voice is as unruly as ever, a lithe live wire turning itself inside and out, smoking like old tungsten and throwing sparks like steel on flint. So slippery that all the adjectives in the world couldn't stick to it, and muscular enough to beat back any misplaced verb, her voice yelping, caressing, cracking, seducing, explaining, rejoicing, speaking in tongues is the original instrument, the word made flesh, the throat thrown open into sound. She'll lull you to sleep and scare the bejeezus out of you. You aren't free after all, because once you've let the album in, you may never shake it off again.