Photograph by Ethan Levitas.
Marshall is a conjurer; she brings a song home by resisting standard line readings. Photograph by Ethan Levitas.
On Dec 5, 2007 4:27 PM, Studio Manager <email@example.com> wrote:
If you are going to take the photograph from the New Yorker website and use for your posting, you must credit the photographer. He worked way too hard for you to show it without attribution. What were you thinking? No need to answer, just please correct the mistake.
Attribution should be:
Photograph by Ethan Levitas for the New Yorker
Ethan Levitas Studio
by Sasha Frere-Jones
Tsinger and songwriter Chan Marshall performs under an alias—Cat Power—with superhero connotations, but she sometimes struggles simply to get through a concert. She was born Charlyn Marie Marshall, in Georgia, and began appearing in clubs in Atlanta, in the late eighties, while she was still in her teens. I first saw her play in 1995, at a now defunct club called the Cooler, in New York’s meatpacking district. She performed alone, seated, with a black-and-white Danelectro guitar. Light-brown bangs covered much of her face, and she slouched, wearily, as if she were entering the fourth hour of an interrogation. When she spoke, she sounded drunk and disoriented. Occasionally, her bangs would swing away from her face, revealing freckles, a heart-shaped mouth, and clear brown eyes. Her voice kept me from leaving; when she was audible, there was a palpable ache in her singing, as well as flashes of sharp, high tones. There were also uncomfortably generous silences.
Whatever else was going wrong, though, Marshall knew how to dramatize a song, alternating bursts of passion with unintelligible whispers. It’s hard to know what to call the music that she was playing. She strummed her guitar tentatively, repeating a few simple chords. It sounded a bit like the quieter moments in songs by Sonic Youth, but stripped of confidence. At one point, there was a long and painful pause as Marshall nervously tuned her guitar. She mumbled apologies while a sympathetic audience member tried to quiet the chatter in the room.
Her voice compelled me to buy her albums, which were bewitching even when they were vexing. In early songs, like “Nude As the News,” from 1996, Marshall the songwriter came up short on melody and structure, while Marshall the singer flourished, singing conversationally and then pushing her voice upward, to a range where it sounded weirdly comfortable and pure. Though her songs lagged behind her singing, Marshall was developing a sense for piercing, if unmoored, lyrics. The chorus of “Nude As the News”—“Jackson, Jesse, I’ve got a son in me”—appears to be a confession to the Reverend but was, in fact, Marshall later divulged, an autobiographical story about an abortion that she’d had when she was twenty. (Jesse and Jackson are the children of Patti Smith, one of Marshall’s heroes.) By 1998, when Marshall released the album “Moon Pix,” she had become a minor star. The French, in particular, took to her gamine looks and confused air; by the end of the century, she had entered the upper rank of independent musicians, despite suffering from debilitating stagefright and having recorded only a handful of good songs.
In 2000, Marshall released “The Covers Record.” She had been recording songs by other musicians for years; her first two albums included tracks by Tom Waits and Hank Williams. But “The Covers Record” consisted almost entirely of songs by other people, and, with one exception (the folk song “Salty Dog,” in which Matt Sweeney played the guitar), Marshall sang and played—the piano and the guitar—unaccompanied. Something, probably cigarettes, had rubbed some texture into her voice, and she had learned how to manipulate her breathy middle range. She had found the place, between an incantation and a whisper, where her voice wanted to settle, and revealed herself to be a conjurer, like Nina Simone and Patti Smith: someone who could bring a song home, not through force but by teasing and delaying words, and by resisting standard line readings. Marshall is expert at singing painful lines as if she can’t feel a thing, and at crying out seemingly benign lines as if she’s being lanced.
“The Covers Record” also provided Marshall with songs that she needed but hadn’t been able to write: personal but poetically indirect, intimate but still odd. Several of the tracks were traditional folk songs, such as “Kingsport Town,” which was recorded by Bob Dylan in 1962. Others were by living songwriters: Bill Callahan’s “Red Apples,” Lou Reed’s “I Found a Reason,” the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—which Marshall gently pulverizes by eliminating the famous central riff, quietly finger-picking the chords, and singing the lyrics as if she’s experienced plenty of satisfaction. “Doing this and signing that” sound like strenuous activities in her blissful, supine interpretation.
In 2005, Marshall made a new album, using a radically different approach. With the help of Chris Lombardi, the founder of Matador Records, and the Memphis music critic Robert Gordon, she assembled a band of musicians, some of whom had appeared on her favorite Southern soul records in the seventies. Called the Memphis Rhythm Band, it featured local R. & B. royalty—Mabon (Teenie) Hodges, who played and co-wrote several songs with Al Green, and Steve Potts, a drummer who played with Booker T. and the M.G.s. For Marshall, an inconsistent performer, working with musicians of this stature took guts. The resulting album, “The Greatest,” was a startling leap forward. For the first time, Marshall wrote songs that matched her capabilities as a singer, and in a mode—classic Southern soul—utterly unlike the shambolic rock with which she had begun her career.
In September, 2006, I saw Marshall play in New York, and she seemed transformed. She wore a faded green shirt, bluejeans, and black Christian Louboutin heels. She waved her hands, shimmied to the music, and played a game with a pack of cigarettes, throwing it offstage and then retrieving it. (In interviews, Marshall has credited sobriety and antidepressants with helping her to overcome stagefright and put an end to some of her more erratic behavior.) When she played her new songs, they sounded as fully realized and idiosyncratic as the covers she had recorded. “Lived in Bars,” from “The Greatest,” is a slow, deliberate rumination about “living in a bottle.” The lyrics avoid both the pat sentimentality of barroom camaraderie and the hollow rhetoric of recovery. Though Marshall mentions “ending it all,” she makes her local bar sound like the kind of place that you could happily lose a few weeks in: “Send in the trumpets, the marching wheelchairs. Open the blankets, and give them some air. Swords and arches, bones and cement, the light and the dark of the innocent of men.”
Marshall’s new album, “Jukebox,” which will be released in January, is an implicit sequel to “The Covers Record”: another collection of songs by others, plus two songs by Marshall. But where “The Covers Record” was relentlessly bare and almost claustrophobically focussed on her voice, “Jukebox” builds on the aesthetic that she began developing in “The Greatest.” The album features Marshall’s new group, Dirty Delta Blues, which includes several well-known indie-rock musicians—among them Jim White, of the Dirty Three, and Judah Bauer, of Blues Explosion—but the music is still Southern soul, albeit slowed down and deformed. The opening track is a cover of “New York, New York”; the melody and the chords have been upended, and the music sounds like a slack version of an Otis Redding song. If you don’t listen closely to the words, you probably wouldn’t recognize the song. Marshall has eliminated Liza Minnelli’s and Frank Sinatra’s bravado and substituted a sure-footed sense of delight.
Still, the album drags in places, whereas “The Greatest” snapped and burned. Marshall’s voice and the band members’ instruments have been mixed with an unusual amount of echo; sometimes the effect evokes an empty club at 3 A.M., but sometimes it seems to sap energy from the performances. The album’s highlight is Marshall’s version of James Brown’s “Lost Someone,” a slow dance that she allows to build to a peak without ever overreaching or trying to shout herself out of the heartbreak. “Never go to strangers, come on home to me,” she chants, first in a low murmur and later in a cry, neither particularly anguished. Marshall could not have conquered a song this blunt and desperate in her youth. But, now that she knows better who she is, perhaps she’s less afraid of losing herself