Thirty-year-old Chan (pronounced "Shawn") Marshall is a New York-based, Atlanta-raised singer-songwriter, recording under the name Cat Power, whose fragile songs often seem to teeter on the brink of a dark abyss. Patti Smith and PJ Harvey are the obvious comparisons: Few other women in pop have plumbed these particular wells of raw emotion, sexual charisma, punk attitude and blues idioms.
With her haunting vocals, striking looks and occasional off- or onstage meltdown, Marshall has offered the indie-rock world a much-needed dose of glamour and mystery. (Her mystery-to-glamour ratio has lately been tilting: Last year New York magazine ran a photo spread of Marshall modeling the clothes of some of her famous downtown fashion-designer friends.) No longer an indie secret, she's now attempting to reach out to an expanded audience without sacrificing the qualities that made her distinctive.
"You Are Free" is Cat Power's first album of original songs since 1998's "Moon Pix." ("The Covers Album" came out in 2000, comprising highly idiosyncratic versions of songs by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Michael Hurley, Nina Simone and Moby Grape.) Produced by the high-profile Adam Kasper (who's worked with Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters) and reportedly featuring cameos by Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl -- credited only as E.V. and D.G. -- "You Are Free" feels at times like Cat Power on kitty Prozac: Marshall sounds more energetic and forceful than ever before. Although her songs still sometimes devolve into abstract lyrics intoned over repetitive blues chords, she now tells more stories, reaches out more to other people, and introduces greater variation to her emotional and sonic palette, which has in the past remained more consistently gray.
"Everybod-ee, come together, / everybod-ee, get together / Free," Marshall sings on the second track over a simple guitar riff and some John Cale-style organ. She somehow makes these hackneyed sentiments, as old as the Summer of Love, sound fresh; it has something to do with the song's directness and simplicity, with "free" repeated as a mantra in need of no further explanation. And from Marshall, who's known for her stage fright and fear of crowds, this kind of invitation feels especially generous. "Good Woman," similarly, strips the music down to an anguished violin blues, and the lyrics to some fundamental home truths: "I want to be a good woman / and I want for you to be a good man / this is why I will be leaving."
"You Are Free" acquires cumulative power in its blending of intensely personal emotional expression and spooky, very timely musings on violence, domination and war. The songs shuttle between two emotional states, embodied in "free" and "war." The amazing "He War" is built up from a haunting little minor-key piano figure, a propulsive punk-rock guitar riff, and Marshall chanting and half-rapping about vicarious or delegated violence like some Rasta prophet: "He war he war / he will kill for you." "Do you know how to read between the lines?" she sings elsewhere; "the great big howling is about to begin." Marshall's songs alternately seem like an attempt to drown out that howling, or to channel it.
Cat Power is to appear at the 9:30 club on March 22.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8162.)