Essential Cat Power: The Early Years


Chan Marshall's early years were an explosion that made no sound, dynamite that's gone off in slow motion. Underneath the lid of Marshall's smooth voice, there was danger, sadness, excitement, and emotions to color every inch of concrete between New York City and South Carolina. The spidery web of guitars that slowly weaves it's way around your head forces an odd dance with the mystery of chance and never ending self reflection. It's the sound of a broken southern woman, steeped in folk and blues, strapping on a guitar in mid 90's New York City.  There's an intensive, "I'm playing live and plugged in down in the basement" feel to "Still in Love" and "Rockets" that is palpable and immediate as ever. These two songs capture Marshall's very early songs quite well: there's the voice, the restrained rhythm, and the sense of moving after a target in the dark (the sound of the guitars almost suggests this).

It's a sheer pleasure when all the cylinders of the Cat Power musical machine are working: the yearning voice, the aimless guitar wedded to the melodic guitar, and the simple drums and bass that allow for Marshall to lay her artistic tapestry over. In "Talking People", a real sense of this spacey, yet clean guitar sound comes to the forefront. Complete with a slide guitar that comes in at the end, the song features Marshall challenging the contemporary world's definition of success (college/marriage/kids/big job). She the outsider, here, the caterer at a college graduation party that's the same age as the kid graduating. But she's got big dreams. 

"Nude as the News" translates some of the questions embedded in her early material into an emotional crescendo, as she recounts with equal parts anger and sadness an abortion that she went through. In "Nude as the News", Marshall has some emotions, and there's no doubt she's in total control of them, commanding a band through a series of minor electric guitar chord changes that chug along like a slow river of black coal syrup, but steadily pick up steam as they head for the waterfall. By the song's conclusion, Marshall has traveled a long journey, and she's not afraid to shout the news. It's certainly one of her best songs.

Meanwhile, "Say" dives headfirst  into hope and a beautiful melody: when Marshall sings "when no one is around, love will always love you", you immediately know you've never heard something more beautifully sang about God before or since.

"Metal Heart" has long been a fan favorite, a classic 90's cultural document of Generation X malaise. Marshall is able to take four simple folk chords and deconstruct them entirely, picking aimlessly at some C's and A minors' only to let the strength of the song's melody and worn out lyrics break through loud and clear.

Lastly, a cover of the Rolling Stones- "I Can't Get No (Satisfaction)"-illustrates the capacity that Marshall has to really hear a song for what it is. She found the emotional garbage underneath the exterior swagger of this song, exposed it, and let us all know about it, like it was all over the news.

Cat Power Discography: The Early Years, 1995-2000

Dear Sir, 1995

Myra Lee, 1996

What Would the Community Think? 1996

Moon Pix, 1998

The Covers Record, 2000

For more on Cat Power, check out some earlier posts here and here.

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