Altered Sound Depletes Ability To Embrace Powerful 'Sun'
Published: Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
This week, the American indie-rock scene hails the subversive return of Cat Power, which, frustratingly enough, is not the name of a band but rather the self-assumed title of a single musician. Chan Marshall, whose problems with alcohol abuse have limited her output in recent years, was a ’90s no-hit wonder turned celebrated singer-songwriter in 2003 with her release of You Are Free. Marshall’s moody ninth album, Sun, though bearing flashes of warmth, is musically intent on staying clear of its eponymous namesake, preferring the submarine coolness of distorted chord strums and pulsing ocean-tinted sound. The layering invokes a shimmering neo-grunge, which in these trying times essentially just means “modern new wave minus pop appeal.” Despite it all, however, when her music occasionally picks at upbeat, end-of-a-long-winter vibes, Marshall does have something relatively meaningful to add to the conversation on self-destructiveness.
Staying Western for Marshall means minimalist riffs layered in electric arpeggios. The earliest-release from the album, “Ruin,” is probably the most energetic and explicit track, and the first track, “Cherokee,” has an interesting surrealism to its chorus as Marshall chants for an upside-down burial and a marriage to the sky. That said, when Marshall ventures into the foreign tones of world music, the best way to describe the result is a colossal drag. Indistinct harmonizing meets watery backgrounds in these chime-y, comatose melodies, such as “Always on My Own” and “Real Life.” The band’s piano and guitar work is painstakingly simple, usually no more than seven or eight notes played over and over. One of the later tracks, “Manhattan,” has the audacity to capitalize on a spacey, four-note cycle played listlessly (and infectiously) on the piano.
On that note, I’d like to direct everyone’s attention to Cat Power’s bass in general. This is quite possibly the laziest bass I’ve ever heard. No, no, please buddy, don’t strain yourself! It’s not like there’s anything urgent about anchoring the drums and guitar in alternative sound. The instrumentals of Sun are mostly passable, if reductively tuneful, but the overall lack of percussiveness outside of the drum kit is noteworthy. Seriously, I think I could have played the bass of Sun with a rubber band tied across a coffee mug. That actually may be what happened.
All right, let’s move on. The quality of Marshall’s vocals is one of non-descript prettiness, the sort of voice that gets you by without a lot of questioning. What’s exasperating about this, though it isn’t unappealing, is that Cat Power never seems to break itself or split its sides. The message is angry, tortured, and even seditious, but it never seems to be trying. As the novelty wears off, the blue-green tracks begin to mesh into each other, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone in the studio. This “effortless” mode of stylistic singing isn’t necessarily uncommon, as great musicians have been winging breezy power-tunes since before Tom Petty. Still, whereas a Cat Stevens album has its explosive moments amid the ease, a shouted “never” from “Maybe You’re Right” or the thunderous end of “Peace Train,” Cat Power’s voice never truly crackles. Hence the blanketing wateriness of the album, like a feminine Automatic for the People without the nonsensical depth. Even on the more buoyant tracks, Sun is rarely incendiary. The lyricism, though occasionally striking, is often subdued by the ambience.
The songs that break this pattern are “Human Being,” “Silent Machine,” and the finale “Peace and Love.” It’s on these tracks that Cat Power calls for its vague revolution, citing people being shot in the street and a new, antagonistic generation as reasons for passionate outcry. Chan Marshall does some legitimate teeth-gnashing, and the discontent is palpable throughout these songs.
Sun as a completed project has some glimpses of vivid color, but the heavily overdubbed and manufactured sound restricts its capacity for humanity. A conspicuous lack of negative space and a gripping riff make for a slow burn of an LP with not quite enough variety or clarity to salvage its own statements. It’s admirable, however, that Cat Power at least sacrifices a great deal of commercial potential to record with her own emotion invested and bared, even if it can’t ante up a bass line to save its soul.