There's no doubt that Chan Marshall, the only constant of the beguiling in-flux entity that is Cat Power, is beautiful. To an indie-rock boy or girl, she's a goddess, the lithe girl with eye-obscuring bangs in old blue jeans with better musical taste than you. If you're a clothing designer, she's both muse and model. In a recent New York Times review, she was even a diva, albeit a sad slacker one.
The Greatest, Cat Power's seventh album, is neither a "greatest hits" disc nor her greatest record. Model-smooth and unblemished, it is, however, Cat Power's most sumptuous and beautiful recording. Disinclined to return to the studio, she arranged her dream recording session, knocked out in a series of first takes in Memphis at Ardent Studios (notorious for capturing the melancholic, disintegrating pop of Alex Chilton and Big Star in the early '70s). Just don't expect the catharses and psychological crumbling that composed Big Star's Sister Lovers or Cat Power's previous recordings to be bared on The Greatest.
Instead, Marshall is composed throughout. For "The Greatest" and its backdrop of strings and rippling reverb, she's as calm and mellow as she's ever been before the mic, her voice as smoky as slow-cooked barbecue. While her music in the past drew on Southern blues and gospel, it all sounds of a piece here, coolly co-opted and blended. "Empty Shell" draws a country fiddle with it, while "After It All" has a tinge of boogie-woogie in its tickled ivory.
Such deftness arises from the pedigree of the session players around her, such as Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and his brother Leroy on guitar and bass. For those who may have spent more time wrinkling their linen to Al Green records than reading the liners, these brothers brought the sensual, silky underpinnings to the man's ecclesiastical soul records throughout the '70s. And by the sounds here, the brothers are as deep and supple as sexagenarians as they were back then. The Hodges personify that casual Memphis sound; they're so deft at shuffling behind the beat only to nail it at the last possible nanosecond that you almost don't notice Marshall's aversion to things like bridges and chord changes. Greil Marcus once called this distinct sensation of Cat Power as "feel[ing] the world come to a complete stop." As the backing Memphis musicians shimmer and slide all around her, she remains steadfast.
For once, Marshall sounds comfortable in her skin, which may be a bad place for her to be. Her notoriety had been built on dissonance, on crying jags, onstage meltdowns, manic highs and depressive lows, and her backing players have scrabbled to assuage her in such uneven terrain. In the past, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley and Dirty Three performed their tasks admirably, but the most disjointed was 2003's You Are Free. Here the muscular grunge of guests like Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder was emasculated in jags of plangent piano and erratic outbursts of rock, the former pounding one drum, the latter's vocal track slowed to an even deeper baritone drawl. Hope and disconsolation alternated in the same song, harrowing abuse tales and world despair plunked beside sing-alongs.
Such ups and downs sound like ancient history now. When Marshall sings about dancing on tables on the sedate "Lived in Bars," it sounds implausible that she ever got such a wild hair up her ass. When she questions "Where Is My Love," it's with such dispassion that you wonder how she could've irrationally loved at all. Promising starts like "Living Proof" cycle in place like a stationary bike. She saves her best punch for last: "Love & Communication" couples a prickly, grungy guitar line with an opulent heaving of strings. That telltale organ, so distinct in Al Green's oeuvre, bubbles up in all its two-fingered, effortless ebullience.
With her frayed edges buffed down throughout, the emotional peaks and valleys of the past are flattened to a content—if unexciting—medium. The Greatest sounds stuck in an antidepressant middle ground, separating Marshall from both her own turbulent past and her drama-lapping fans. Perhaps she places herself best on "Empty Shell": "When she sits on your lap/Try to pretend to laugh/When she does stupid things/Just like I used to do/Do not hate her/For to leave her is to love her."firstname.lastname@example.org