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Free at Last?
Power: You Are Free
Posted: February 23,
You Are Free, brooding, impassioned singer-songwriter Chan
Marshall's latest album under the Cat Power moniker, is a contradiction.
Marshall's sense of liberation, of finally having come to terms with her
own modest but steadily growing amount of fame, comes through loud and
clear. And for an artist known for her lyrical ambiguity, the album boasts
Marshall's most purposefully direct content to date. Musically, however,
You Are Free follows an early- to mid- '90s grunge/indie rock
template, almost giddily derivative of the sounds and stylings that put
Seattle on the musical map some ten years ago. Clearly, Marshall's time in
the Pacific Northwest has had a powerful influence on her music. But her
absorbed influences prove an odd fit with her nakedly confessional
songwriting style. You Are Free contains some of the best writing
of Marshall's career, but the spare, acoustic, almost determinedly
non-scene-oriented strum evident on her previous releases has been
supplanted by what could best be described as an orchestrated train wreck
between Marshall's idiosyncratic ideas and the done-to-death power rhythms
of alternative rock.
Not that Marshall exists solely in a Seattle state of mind these days,
despite the fact that album opener "I Don't Blame You" tells of a tragic,
Cobain-like rock star who takes his own life rather than deal with the
difficulties of sudden wealth and fame. Marshall clearly endorses holding
on to one's own identity, no matter how great the outside pressures: "Just
because they knew your name/ Doesn't mean they know from where you came."
To be fair, though, Marshall hasn't had to deal with anywhere near the
level of exposure of someone like Cobain, so it's all but impossible to
walk in those shoes and do the uneasiness and misery justice.
Freedom, be it personal or global, permeates the album. "Free"
addresses fans who place people such as Cobain on too high a pedestal.
"Don't be in love with the autograph/ Just be in love when u scream that
song," Marshall sings, exhorting extreme diehards to free themselves of
their fanaticism (and thus allow the objects of those super-sized
obsessions to breath more freely as well). The sublime "Fool" champions an
anti-materialistic ethos (what better way to be free than to divest
oneself of the material goods that weigh us down?), while "Maybe Not"
contains what could be You Are Free's defining statement of
purpose: "We can all be free/ Maybe not with words/ Maybe not with a look/
But with your mind."
And then, as if to contradict such strong thematic messages, there's
the album's heavy grunge influence. You Are Free was recorded and
mixed by Adam Kasper (Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, et al),
features the muscular stickwork of everyone's favorite session drummer
Dave Grohl, and recruits Eddie Vedder for some vocal harmonizing on "Good
Woman" and "Evolution". The ragged guitar warm-up on "He War" would have
fit comfortably on Nirvana's Nevermind, while the aforementioned
"Good Woman" sounds like a response to Vedder's "Better Man." The danger
here is that these too-familiar musical touchstones risk losing the unique
quality that makes Cat Power so special: Marshall herself. Unsurprisingly,
You Are Free is at its best when the spotlight sticks to Marshall
and her acoustic guitar (and a little minor key piano). The deliberate,
moody "Babydoll" and "Keep on Runnin'," an eerie, stripped-to-the-bone
reworking of John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider," stand out from the
big rhythm overload found on the rest of the disc.
Thus, You Are Free presents a quandary. Marshall has never
sounded more self-assured or emotionally forthcoming as she does here, but
the dense production threatens to eclipse the strongest elements of her
personal, unadorned art. On "Speak for Me," Marshall asks "Do you know how
to read between lines?" Certainly, but it would be a lot easier to
concentrate without all that noisy racket.
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