IMAGINE IF LIZ Phair couldn't write, sing, or play...if Kate Moss's "brain-dead tadpole" persona (as Greil Marcus once referred to it) were transmuted to the audio realm...if Cat Stevens were somehow even more dunced-out and felt even sorrier for himself than usual. Then say hello to the wonderful world of Chan Marshall, a.k.a. indie-pop sensation Cat Power.
To be fair, Marshall has given the world one hell of a catch phrase. The name "Cat Power" promises something: It's sharp, sexy, menacing. It's light on its feet and it keeps you on edge.
Unfortunately, upon playing the records, listeners immune to Marshall's hype soon figure out that "Cat" is short for "catatonic." The singer doesn't usually raise her voice above a whisper. Occasionally, when she's feeling feisty, she cultivates a hollowed-out bellow that seems meant to convince us how deeply she's hurting inside. (It mostly serves notice that she needs to get out of the house more often.)
"Power," meanwhile, would seem to evoke Marshall's stubborn refusal to cultivate a mood other than petulant crabbiness. Neither pissed off at the world nor brokenhearted--"She plays the difficult parts and I play difficult," she once sang--Marshall's is the voice of the trust-fund brat who has forgotten to take today's Prozac and is making you, the innocent bystander, pay for her misery.
Being unable to leave well enough alone is the mark of a true passive-aggressive, and Marshall now moves on from her own bad compositions--dumped on 1996's What Would the Community Think and 1998's Moon Pix--to foist her shtick onto the works of others. In truth, The Covers Album (Matador) does find her sounding far less agitated than usual: There are even moments, such as her zither-accompanied take on Phil Phillips's golden oldie "Sea of Love," where her tongue is far enough inside her cheek to make the joke hum. But the rest of the new album feels like a conceptual exercise hinging on Marshall's uncanny ability to make every song she sings sound exactly the same, from the folk number "Kingsport Town" to the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." One and all, they sound like Mazzy Star arranged for bad folk guitar, like Low stripped of ideas, like a broken humidifier.
The tone is set by "Satisfaction," a double-whammy of an opening number that's both emotionally and sonically stunted--Cat Power's trademark--by a vintage performance-art-style trick. See, Marshall's version--wink wink, nudge nudge--eliminates the song's signature riff and chorus! And given that the vocalist's entire style rests upon her sucking the air out of everything she sings until it's as flat as a crepe--boy, can't you just smell the sacrilege? Isn't the whole thing just clever as all hell?!
No, it's not. It's so obvious it's embarrassing. And Marshall's retooling reveals nothing about the song. Sure, she makes it sound callow and savagely mocking; so did Mick Jagger. But who needs "Satisfaction" when you're already as self-satisfied as Cat Power? On that song and elsewhere, The Covers Record amounts to a declaration of Chan Marshall's superiority to everything she touches. Why sully herself by actually attempting to do anything with these songs when she can just play the same two chords for all of them and moan distractedly?
For all the reverence Cat Power receives from disaffected art students, her posture as an artist whose soul is so fragile that it threatens to break in front of her audience may be the most purely showbiz conceit alt-rock has produced in years. Eat your heart out, Marilyn Manson.
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