Cat Power’s revival has been long-awaited, but eagerly accepted

 By Harris Wheless

September 18, 2019

Sometimes the success of a second act hinges on bringing yourself back to your roots. On Monday night at Cat’s Cradle, Chan Marshall, known by her stage name Cat Power, delivered a smattering of covers, old gems, and songs from her latest album, Wanderer, released in October 2018. Despite its title, Wanderer is a homecoming that can be heard in the way it traces a line through the styles and themes which Cat Power always has and continues to explore.

From where she stood on stage, bright points of red and blue light lit her from the back, making a silhouette of her figure. Echoing guitar notes rang out, then the piano came in and the rest of the band launched into the set opener “He Turns Down” from Moon Pix. “Have you ever seen the face/ You know the one I’m talking about,” Marshall sang with a knowing intimacy.

The band launched straight into a medley of “Into My Arms/ Dark End of the Street/ Horizon,” the last of which is from the new record. Shadows waltzed past as Marshall crooned and swayed to the music. The drummer thumped along with a large mallet, alternately changing to sticks as the moment called for it. One minute the song would be moving slowly, then it would explode out of ballad form into a rolicking tempo, like a pot boiling over.

On her first album, Dear Sir, Cat Power sings that “It’s all so good” and “It’s all gone so fast.” The same might be said of her career. Where did all the time go? It’s been over 20 years, but it seems like just yesterday she was discovered opening for Liz Phair, then recorded the entirety of her first two albums in a single studio session.

Her supporting cast on this tour is an adept three-piece of drums, keys, and guitar, capable of trotting out licks and moods from all corners of her catalog. But her voice is the band’s defining instrument; it anchors her sound and imbues the spare live arrangements with a simultaneous sense of urgency and restraint. If the song says “jump,” her voice says “how high?”

As the guitarist strummed the opening chords of a tune, Marshall said: “This one is a Lana Del Rey song.” A mixture of grumbles and cheers emerged from the crowd. In the world of alternative music, a pop cover can be divisive. But what else can be expected from an artist who is notorious for defiant acts of interpretation and genre-blending? 

Cat Power’s catalog is unique among singer-songwriters in how much space she makes for covers. There is an inherent act of revision in covering songs beyond just creating a new interpretation of the music. By choosing to cover a song, an artist can breathe life into it and imbue it with new visibility or significance. And in Cat Power’s hands, nothing is sacred and nothing is taken for granted, not even the Great American Songbook.

Like other restless iconoclasts, her career has zigzagged through Americana, punk, synth-pop, electronica, and various amalgamations of those genres. But unlike others whose catalogs are rife with overblown, failed experiments, Marshall’s every pivot has been grounded in the same careful attention to craft which makes every one of her album a success.

Wanderer marked Cat Power’s return to music following a six-year hiatus. The album’s cover is a cropped photo of Marshall’s son at her waist, her own hand gripping the neck of a guitar. The album is self-produced and much of it was recorded at Marshall’s home studio in Miami. The album’s title track is a gospel hymn, sung acapella. When the band performed it live, they transformed it into a stripped-down rock song, with the melody moving along at a lilting, head-nodding pace. Even with her new material, she is constantly recasting songs to see how they look in a different light. On this, her tenth album, Cat Power paints herself out of the corners she was previously put in, but still manages to touch on all of the styles that make up her musical identity. 

The band proved a worthy accompaniment, swaggering along to left field covers and quick changes of pace or tune. The guitarist invited some country twang to the band’s rendition of “These Days,” the Jackson Browne-penned tune first recorded and popularized by Nico. Marshall’s voice, meanwhile, gathered up the downtrodden lyrics and recast the song’s damaged protagonist into one who rises above sadness into hope.

In the past, Cat Power was known for her erratic stage shows, brought on by performance anxiety and mental health issues. Her extended hiatus seems to have served her well. The years and her influence have compounded her into an elder stateswoman of rock, but by no means has this made her a complacent performer. On the contrary, the new album and tour seem to have renewed her spirit. 

As she swayed along to “The Greatest,” one of her signature songs, her voice spread out across the room like smoky nightclub air. The quiet backing of brushes, piano and guitar gave body to her restrained whispers, urging the audience to “lower me down” and “pin me in.” If her music has taught us anything, it is that there is more to pain and loss than just sadness. Every person has a unique way of processing his or her experiences, and Cat Power has a way of making those experiences come alive in her songs.

Once the last note disappeared up into the rafters, the band stood up, brushed past the curtains, and off the stage. Marshall picked up her notebook from a lectern but hung back, her mouth momentarily parted as she collected herself. “Please enjoy this life. It is so short,” she said, finally. Then, after offering a few more comforting words, she blew kisses to the crowd, and departed. 

When the lights came back up, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, and Elizabeth Cotten could be seen beaming down from the wall— all artists with their own unique genre or style, but nothing that Marshall hasn’t had a foot in. Her comeback has meant a further development of her sound and an introduction to a new generation of fans. It’s a revival that has been long-awaited, and eagerly accepted. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait another six years before reinventing herself again.

Check out the remaining 2019 tour dates for Cat Power.

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