Agony Shorthand

Wednesday, March 31, 2004

It’s really easy to make fun of the shrinking violet known as CAT POWER, as I’ve spent a little writing time doing it myself. Why, last time I checked she was running away with the lead in the Chunklet online poll for “Shittiest Live Act You’ve Ever Seen”. That said, I count myself as a huge fan of hers. I think she’s one of the most talented rock/folk/whatever musicians of our time, and every time I think she’s about to tank under the weight of the hype that swirls around her, she delivers another fantastic record – records that I am quite certain many of us will still be listening to and enumerating on various lists 20 years from now. A year ago I wrote up a review of her latest, “You Are Free”, and after shelving it for many months, I brought it out again for repeated spins this week. Now I like it even more, and stand even more resolute in my defense of the mumbling, non-sequiter-producing, often completely cuckoo live performer known as Cat Power.

“You Are Free” is the record that was supposed to be her big sellout, the one with Eddie Vedder and I guess some other famous people helping out (where they're lurking is a mystery, as this is all Ms. Power’s show). It isn’t – a disc with something like 10 nearly-hookless solo piano or guitar pieces is unlikely to shift a lot of units, even if the other 4 are pumped-up, multitracked full-band rock and roll. Of those 10, I have a new favorite track of hers, “Maybe Not” – a gently desperate and but ultimately hopeful piano piece, right out of the late-period Marianne Faithfull school of pain without the rasped vocals. In fact, Ms. Power’s vocals, which come off to some as phony or straining for attention, are to me plaintive, aching and quite lovely. I think this woman is for real, something I have to keep convincing myself of. “You Are Free” has only one misstep, and it’s the track right after the beautiful “Maybe Not”, “Names”. Unfortunately this one steps right into the trap of those who believe Ms. Power to be “depressing”, and it’s such a cartoony, central casting version of depressing – kids selling their bodies for crack, little girls molested by their daddies & that sort of jive – that I suggest that you pretend that this track never happened and use the skip feature that now comes mandatory on all factory-direct CD players. Everything else on here approaches brilliance, maybe even better overall than “Moon Pix” (my “favorite record of 1998”). Having seen her live three times now, I think I’m done tempting fate and will stick to lining up to buy her next release at 12:01am the day it’s released.