Cat Power: You Are Free

Cat Power
You Are Free

I'm feeling optimistic and Chan Marshall is singing. Something must be wrong with me. Something is always wrong when Marshall, who goes by the name Cat Power, puts out a new record: Her voice is a soundtrack for any woman who doesn't know whether to despair all alone or freak out all over someone else's shit. And Marshall makes her conflicted score sound darn pretty, too.

How nice, though, that Cat Power lightens up a little and blooms beautiful on You Are Free, becoming more folk troubadour than messenger of doom. She even rocks out once in a while: The second track, "Free," is filled with sparse, angular acoustic guitar, with new-wave drums accenting the right beats. "Don't fall in love with an autograph," Marshall sings. "Just be in love when you scream that song." Good advice, and you can dance to it.

Not to worry, fans from the first days of the bleak. Marshall never will be a ray of sunshine (see The Covers Record for more remorse). Her voice has become such a refined instrument that it could probably be grouped with the string section of the orchestra, and has anyone ever blamed a violin for sounding sad? (Probably, and we'll gladly find those critics with their heads stuck in a French horn.) Ultra-bummers are Marshall's forte, so you know there has to be one somewhere on You Are Free. Yet the real buzzkill of this record, "Names," manages to be pleasantly tuneful even as it delivers a smack-down list of every horror that could happen to a kid: abduction, drug addiction, incest. Okay, maybe I'm not so optimistic anymore.

Johnny Cash's American III: Solitary Man seems a likely reference point for this record, both in its soulful vibe and quiet complexity: Pianos, violins, and drums make appearances throughout You Are Free, but these instruments never overpower the music as a whole. Cameos aren't meant to distract here, either: "D.G." and "E.V." are covertly listed in the credits (Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedderwhoopdeedoodah, respectively). You won't recognize the grunge stars outright, but you'll pay attention to their contributions. Dig the rolling snare of "Shaking Paper," Grohl's offering in this could-be sequel to Cat Power's cult classic "Nude as the News." Ditto for his Johnny Reb chugga-chugga on my favorite song of the record, "He War." (A shout-out also goes to Vedder for his anonymous baritone on "Evolution.") Yet the best guest appearance on the record would have to be Marshall herself: With studio sorcery, she often sings her harmonies and rounds, fittingly, all alone.

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