This is the first in an occasional series of features where one of our writers reflects on their five favourite tracks by a particular artist. Here, Greg Salter kicks things off with Cat Power, who recently announced that her new record, Sun, is due on Matador in September.
‘Cross Bones Style’, from Moon Pix, 1998
‘Cross Bones Style’ is probably the most accessible moment on Moon Pix, Chan Marshall’s absorbing, meditative, dark and best album (not a difficult task, admittedly). It’s built around a few sets of lyrics that circle around throughout and obliquely reference the horrors of the diamond industry. But you get the feeling that it’s the extremes she’s interested in, the contradictions – coal and diamonds, innocence and experience. The contradictions sit in the music too, and ultimately make the track work – Marshall’s vocals glide beautifully over her guitar arpeggios that threaten to collapse into a dirge. Meanwhile, Jim White’s drums – an unsung element of Moon Pix as a whole – push her on and on.
‘Nude As The News’, from What Would The Community Think, 1996
‘Nude As The News’ is an astonishing early song from 1996’s What Would The Community Think. Musically, it is tense and tight, betraying Marshall’s debt to early ‘90s alt-rock and Sonic Youth in the first part of her career. Lyrically, she manages to again convey something huge with very little – Marshall has talked about an abortion that she had when she was younger when discussing ‘Nude As The News’, while it also references the names of Patti Smith’s children (“Jackson, Jesse”), someone else who had an abortion at an early age. Elsewhere, the lyrics flit between control and exposure, birth and creativity, masculinity and femininity. And at the centre, there’s Marshall’s impassioned, frail, defiant delivery.
‘Metal Heart’, from Moon Pix, 1998
Another Moon Pix cut, ‘Metal Heart’ embraces sheer emotional honesty rather than masking it behind cryptic, detached lyrics. Marshall’s double-tracked vocals ruminate on heartbreak, brilliantly imbuing a line like “You’re damned if you don’t, you’re damned if you do” with mountains of regret – that last “do” in particular catches in her mouth just a little too long. It’s a song written and recorded at a time when Marshall was famously struggling – her live performances would routinely disintegrate, and Moon Pix engineer Matt Voigt has reported that she would breakdown in tears between takes. But this song would suggest that she didn’t really have an alternative – ‘Metal Heart’ is about strength in fragility: “Metal heart, you’re not hiding/Metal heart, you’re not worth a thing”.
‘I Found A Reason’, from The Covers Record, 2000
Covers have played a vital part in Chan Marshall’s work, from her earliest recordings right up to 2008’s Jukebox. In 2000, following the release of Moon Pix, Marshall released The Covers Record – it was a time when she felt more comfortable singing other people’s songs than her own, and the album as a whole feels like an opportunity to express what couldn’t be expressed in her own songs. ‘I Found A Reason’ is that record’s standout – simple, bare and beautiful, it brings a directness and earnest quality not present in the Velvet Underground original. More than anything, it simply speaks for itself.
‘Maybe Not’, from You Are Free, 2003
‘Maybe Not’ is probably my favourite Cat Power song. Built, as so many of her songs are, around a relatively simple music backdrop – just those piano chords, moving in circles a little clumsily – it unfolds gradually, around Chan Marshall’s words. 2003’s You Are Free feels like a moment of clarity in her back catalogue – she confronts the demons of stage fright (‘I Don’t Blame You’) and the past (‘Names’) with a new confidence. At the centre of the album, ‘Maybe Not’ feels like a mantra, spiritual in a very plain and secular way. It’s heavy with experience (“Listen to me, don’t walk that street/There’s always an end to it”) but aims towards freedom, encapsulating what make Chan Marshall’s music so powerful – its hard-earned directness, and its strength.