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Cat Power : Sun

You’re unlikely to find too many reviews of Cat Power‘s new album that don’t spend a healthy chunk of their word count talking about the circumstances behind its recording, and if you’ve been led here looking for a simple appraisal of the music I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed: the Sun story – and indeed the story of Chan Marshall’s whole career – is one that needs telling in order to fully understand and appreciate this album’s peculiar charms. A twenty year veteran, Marshall spent the ’90s balancing depression and alcoholism – brought about by an unsettled childhood, the loss of her best friend to AIDS, and a string of bad romantic relationships – with life as the cripplingly shy poster-girl for downbeat indie rock, mumbling incoherently and hiding behind her hair at her erratic, often unbearably awkward shows; then in 2006, following a decade of stop-start touring and recording (and at least one attempt at retirement), she re-emerged with The Greatest, an exquisite collection of Southern soul and bar-room blues that expanded her audience – previously a mix of hipster kids and vampiric voyeurs waiting for Marshall to become the next Cobain – to include middle-aged, Mojo-reading classic rock fans. But despite this critical high-point, Marshall’s personal life was still as chaotic as ever, with messy affairs, relapses, cancelled tours and even a spell in a psychiatric ward once more leaving followers fearful for her wellbeing. But whilst knowing all of this makes the new album’s upbeat sound seem remarkable enough, bear this in mind: Sun is actually a break-up record, recorded during the disintegration of Marshall’s three-year relationship with actor Giovanni Ribisi. That thought might, reasonably, strike fear into the hearts of anyone who remembers the singer’s darker days, but amazingly there is little here to suggest Marshall is letting this latest drama phase her. In fact, quite the opposite is true; sounding composed, confident and, yes, happy, Marshall has fashioned a breezy yet tough pop album, one that plays to her strengths – her force-of-nature voice, her innate, strutting sexuality – and leaves her weaknesses face down in the dirt. It isn’t just the positive attitude that’s new though: embracing synths and drum machines for the first time, Cat Power circa 2012 is an altogether different prospect to the sparsely accompanied girl-with-a-guitar of old. But even though it is undeniably a “pop” record – and if you’re in any doubt, check the spiralling pianos of “Ruin” (below), “Manhattan”‘s bright bossa nova rhythms or the playground chant of “3,6,9” for proof – Sun is defiantly out of step with anything you’ll hear in the charts right now. Recalling much of the time the beat-led ’90s quirk-rock of bands like Luscious Jackson and Mellow Doubt-era Beck (“Real Life”, “Silent Machine”), as well as Massive Attack’s grungey, atmospheric “trip-hop” (“Always On My Own”, “Human Being”), it’s almost as if Marshall is trying to wipe the slate clean by rewriting her own history, providing us with the album 1996’s Moon Pix could have been had she been in a better place – psychologically speaking – at the time. That said, it’s unlikely 24 year-old Chan would have had the grown-woman confidence to rap like a lusty Feminem (“Peace & Love”) or compare herself to a Native American warrior (“Cherokee“); she certainly wouldn’t have had her shit together well enough to feel comfortable offering the kind of “it gets better (really)” life-coach advice that she dishes out on the gorgeous, eleven-minute “Nothing But Time”, a song written for Ribisi’s bullied teenage daughter (“It’s up to you to be a superhero/ It’s up to you to be like nobody”). Sun isn’t perfect, but its flaws only add to the appeal: yes, the beats and textures sometimes feel dated, but we already knew that a Cat Power record was never going to sound particularly contemporary, and the fact that Marshall taught herself how to use all these new instruments from scratch just so she could create something different, something that defied expectation, only makes it more endearing. Apparently a whole batch of songs intended for the album were scrapped early on after a friend told Marshall they sounded too much like “the old Cat Power”, and I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing we’d had the opportunity to hear them, but whilst some might find it hard adjusting to this new, happy Chan there isn’t a fan alive who could begrudge her a little peace of mind; here’s hoping the sun keeps shining.

Sun is out now on Matador Records and can be heard in full over at NPR

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About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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