THE LONGER GEORGIA-born lo-fi aesthete Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) estranges herself from the South, the more it haunts her already ominous musical vision. On first listen, the kudzu crawl on her fourth LP, Moon Pix, sounds too coy to be creepy. But the more these forlorn tunes unfold, the more they reveal themselves as meditations on evil. Marshall murmurs her baffling, evasive lyrics (and a retching cover of the standard "Mountaineer") with a drawl that's sometimes visceral but usually kinda muffled, leaving her best ideas caught in a haze as dense as Mississippi swelter.
On 1996's excellent What Would the Community Think, Marshall sounded perplexed, angry, and urgent--as if baring her soul could literally save her life. The album's spookiest song, "Nude as the News," was also its catchiest. On the chorus, Marshall faded into delusional, near-libelous proportions, yelping: "Jackson! Jesse! I got a son in me--and he's related to you! He's related to you! He's been dying to meet you." It's a hysterical claim, and it makes one thing dreadfully clear: Marshall's songs aren't autobiographical. She sings as if she's channeling--or truly possessed.
Sadly, while Moon Pix has plenty of gloom, it lacks its predecessor's demonic energy and the dynamic musical tensions that created it. Marshall joined the NYC indie scene accidentally; she met Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley without really knowing who he was, and let him join her band at his insistence. Along with Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar, Shelley tried to convert Marshall from a country- and blues-inspired songstress into an indie rocker. And on Community, they succeeded. Marshall clung to her simple chords for dear life, looking for safety in drones, in repetition, in open spaces, while Shelley and Foljahn restrained their noisier urges, adding graceful color and texture.
On Moon Pix, Marshall ditches Shelley and Foljahn for Mick Turner and Jim White of the Australian fiddle-dirge band the Dirty Three. Turner's guitar-playing sounds like Foljahn's--they both love reverb and play few notes--but what Turner adds to Marshall's songs sounds unnecessary, even intrusive. White drums on less than half of the songs, leaving Marshall alone to play solo tunes that drag on to frustrating lengths. The most unendurable is "Colors and the Kids," which begins beautifully, with a gentle piano line, but goes nowhere, stuck in a two-chord quagmire for six swamplike minutes.
"American Flag" opens with the hiss of backward cymbal crashes and embarks on a "shoop-shoopy-doop" sing-along gone awry--it's too dark, too sinister to be catchy. "If I could stand to be less difficult," Marshall mumbles on the chorus. She lets the thought dangle, allowing the listener to ponder what a fully formed and ambitious Cat Power record would sound like. But in refusing to finish that thought, she sums up why Moon Pix disappoints.
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