Album Review: Cat Power – Sun

By on Tuesday, 4th September 2012 at 12:00 pm
 

Cat Power has been releasing albums since 1995, although this is her first collection of original material since 2006’s ‘The Greatest’ dished up a down tempo, soulful melange of alt-country-tinged female pop, overlaid with a trademark wondrous sultry vocal. Ms. Power’s bumpy personal history, drinking, and mental difficulties in the intervening period make it all the more surprising that ‘Sun’ comes across as quite the mainstream piece. There’s nothing offensive or particularly abstract here. Indeed, most songs adopt a linear structure of a handful of looped chords, with layered and occasionally cut-up vocal refrains atop.

‘Cherokee’ opens the scoring: a sampled hip-hop beat, and a prime example of the aforementioned looped descending chord sequence as described by electric guitar and piano. And lots, lots of overlaid vocals. Marshall’s voice is the hero here: unctuous yet mildly abrasive, more often than not phased, distorted, blissed-out by studio electronics into washes of swirling vowels. Four chords.

The title track opens with the line, “Here comes the sun” – haven’t we heard that somewhere before? Ethereal voices ponder the meaning of our nearest star. Two chords looped. ‘Ruin’ (video below) bemoans small-town small-mindedness whilst boasting a namecheck list of glamorous, mind-expanding travel destinations. Four chords looped. ‘3, 6, 9’ appropriates and corrupts the eponymous American nursery rhyme for its chorus effectively, whilst the verses make it clear that their bitterness is directed at a particular “abusive, elusive” character. Four chords looped.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nl3Oo4-IQ4[/youtube]

‘Always On My Own’ introduces a three-song cycle of darker, more minimalist, introspective pieces. There’s abstract synth work, massive sub-bass throughout and the familiar overlaid vocals. Three chords alternating ABAC. We delve deeper into the true Cat: “Real life is ordinary / Sometimes you don’t want to live / Sometimes you gotta do what you don’t want to do / To get away with an un-ordinary life”. Four chords. ‘Human Being’ is all churning, portentious synth bass and darkly plucked guitars, Power really getting into her stride with a decent head of gothicity. Four chords looped. When we exit the electronica segment, the message is clear: real life human being always on my own… intriguing.

Emerging, blinking into ‘Manhattan’ – as dry as its cocktail namesake, with synth drums assisted by acoustic percussion. There’s something about the moon, but as with every cultural reference to the most glamorous of the five boroughs, it suffers in comparison to the real thing, although its rhythmic drive would suit a purposeful stride up 6th Avenue. One chord, three inversions looped.

By the time we’re in the final quarter of the record, ‘Silent Machine’ storms into the room, grabs the listener by the scruff of the neck and spits on the floor. A slug of electric guitar, a dirty-as-you-like groove, Power’s voice in full soulful swing, then (warning – spoiler alert) instead of a chorus, there’s some digital cut-up mechanism that makes the world reverse on its axis for a few seconds, fragments of sound replacing linearity, noise making a sudden, uninvited housecall. Perfect in every regard – I want an album of stuff like this, please. Three chords.

‘Nothin’ But Time’ is uplifting musically, but soul-destroying to listen to – eleven minutes of nauseating platitudes drone balefully – even the fully-insured grandad of shock punk, Iggy Pop, sounds like he’s just been interrupted carrying a cup of cocoa up to bed with his pipe and slippers. And it features the worst of all musical gimmicks, the false fade-out. As if the eight minutes endured up until that point were leaving us clamouring for more. Two chords. ‘Peace And Love’ – a jangly, attitudinal closer. One chord.

On the basis of much of the music here, Power is far more blissed-out than would be expected from a bald reading of her personal history. She’s either a hardened nut, washing off the stains of life in the next rain shower and keeping walking, or she’s been on the sauce, pills, or substances of a similar mind-altering bent again. Each to their own, but for long slices of this album one wishes she would simply let rip all the shit she’s been through in a few short, sharp, primal exclamations, rather than skirting around the periphery, indulging in vague new-age claptrap.

It isn’t fair to enumerate the worthiness of music simply by the number of chords employed – simple music can be just as important as the most complex symphony. However, if the musical structures are bare, other attributes need to be correspondingly stronger, and it’s debatable whether that really happens here. With an average of three chords per song, many of those simply looped from beginning to end, there’s a nagging feeling of underdevelopment, of some of these pieces being the embryonic sketches from which a masterwork is desperate to emerge. A song like ‘Silent Machine’ hints at Cat’s power, but there’s not enough exceptional work to really engage the emotions throughout. Despite this, ‘Sun’ does feel like a break into the mainstream. It strikes the right balance of kookiness, accessibility, and catchiness, to be enjoyed by those who like their music with a hint of melancholy, contemporary production chops, and an eleven-minute pep talk to wrap things up. Not quite the greatest yet, then, but there’s still time.

7/10

Cat Power’s ‘Sun’ is out now on Matador Records. You can download ‘Ruin for free here from her label.

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