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Free at Last?

 

Cat Power: You Are Free

Matador, 2003

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: February 23, 2003

By Laurence Station

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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