|Here we are at the tail end of summer and THE summer album (ok, maybe not "the" summer, but DAMN close to it) has been delivered. Leave it to the last minute right? Cat Power (er, Chan Marshall) suffered dark times between her last release (2008's covers collection Jukebox) and this one, but she's ready to embrace the light and joy of living out in the sunshine with her aptly titled new album Sun. What a year for women?!!?! With Fiona Apple, Pussy Riot, and now Cat Power - all firing much needed bullet pointed personal/political statements into the hearts & heads of the world...we have a lot to consider - to take note of...good times/bad times...even with the sadness and trouble and uncertainty, these artists (and many more like them) are giving all of us something to feel in the "way down, buried" pits of our beings.
Marshall is on dangerous ground with this album however. She's daring to be different. I've never liked a Cat Power album start to finish, let me get that out of the way now. She's always had good songs, but never a breathtaking album. Her new collection is that "Wow" set that I've been waiting for as a music fan. Sun is a head first dive into the deep end of the electronic musical arrangements. Marshall hasn't done anything stupid like embrace disco or full-on rave culture, but she plugged in the synths and beat machines to give her a new sound, a new way of dealing with the pain of being in middle of this thing called "life." She's been through the bad stuff. Surely by now we all know about the breakup with Giovanni Ribisi, but she also dealt with personal debt and stress partially caused by a lack of faith from her record label. Her band, the Dirty Delta Blues band (only appearing on one new song "Ruin"), didn't quite lock in with the new songs Marshall was writing - Marshall ended up playing all the instruments herself. She spoke of the new material's difficult birth in dire language saying, "I had no fucking idea what to do, but I knew I was not going to even look at a piano or touch a guitar. So I started out with a weird synthesizer. Eventually I had these skeletons of songs, but then I felt like a failure because I thought, 'This is not fucking good, I don't know what I'm doing.' And I didn't know what I was doing. I had lyrics and a beat and notes, but I didn't have anything else. It sounded like a naked, shivering alien."
As a finished album the naked alien has found clothes and maybe even a quiet property where sunlight is no longer a bitch with a hangover, shaking no more in the lonely cold. Cat Power is reaching out to the world with bright melodic colors. Her last album may have been "The Greatest," but this is her "Best." Sun is a seriously GREAT album. It isn't syrupy "look at me, I'm happy!" BS either. She hasn't FOUND the answer, but she's traveled treacherous trails enough to bring us interesting music. There is a lot of hurt in these tunes. Some critics will overlook the vulnerable elements of these songs claiming Marshall has come through the heartache to find redemption, yes that is here to a degree, but she's still seeking. I don't hear an artist who's fully recovered and dancing jigs with carefree 1% fuckers. I hear someone singing and shaking as therapy, as probably the only satisfying way to live.
The most grievous error in the music's coverage will be the overstating of "electronica" in the music. Marshall has definitely embraced electronics, but whoa buddy, guitars and pianos remain in the aural picture - they just have new sounds to contend with around them. She isn't a dancehall queen just yet people. Her music is thicker and more propulsive. The beats and waves of synths don't sound like Katy Perry, so don't run away ye traditionalists! Dr. Luke is nowhere near this hip and Ke$ha isn't likely to record songs with the urgency or power of Cat Power anytime soon. This is still an indie-rock approach to electronics. Think of Bright Eyes' Digital Ash in a Digital Urn except not a piece of shit.
The title track is the tune with electro-backing in full-flower. It is dripping with all the gizmo bleeps, but still bathed in electric guitar, the balance is just right. Her layered vocals are wonderfully arranged on this tune and the rest of the album. From first single "Ruin" to "Manhattan" her vocals, add pointed and brilliant textures - there is even Kanye-esque auto-tune elements buried deep in a mix or two. In "Real Life" Marshall sings, "real life is ordinary" and that is what makes things so damn extraordinary. Remember that life is amazing, that's the key to the entire album. Humdrum existence can seem bleak, can sometimes attempt to crush us, but if we just "live" - wow, how strangely beautiful.
By the end we've been bobbing along with some bona fide classic pop art. Then surprise, Iggy Pop's backing vocal (what? where did he come from?) comes out of nowhere on the epic 10+ minute "Nothing But Time." His vocal adds to the over the top "fuck 'em - I'm a survivor" attitude of the song. Hypnotic. Cat Power's electronic psychedelic soul monster of a piece is a cathartic finale shouting out, "You wanna live!" because the world is "just beginning." The total bombast of it works completely. I was blown away. It's been awhile since a double-digit running time tune knocked me out. "Nothing" is essentially the ending of the album, but like many works of art, there is a coda.
On her ninth album, Sun, Chan Marshall's in control of her Cat's Power. It wasn't easy getting to the end of the line and she's probably looking forward to a better tomorrow, but for now she's "in it to win it" as she sings on "Peace & Love." The last track is a guitar slasher that is a perfectly delectable dessert to the entree that is the rest of the album. Singing with the conviction of a wise anti-youtube songstress pissed off about the past AND the present, Marshall chants and slurs her purring beefs with her hippie forefathers (and her followers of a younger generation - they're not getting it right either). This is a formidable album from an artist who was always good, but never great. She's given all of us something fantastic and magical. We should go outside and soak up some sun before nightfall.