Playlist #22: Cat Power and Me

Marc Hall takes a personal – at times painful – journey through the Cat Power canon…

There’s something about Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power. Of the hundreds of musical performances I’ve seen over my lifetime, no other artist has driven me to the effort and expense a Cat Power show has.

I’ve ventured beyond these shores on two occasions to see a show: one of those was an opportune chance to see The B-52s playing in Universal Studios during an Orlando holiday, the other was more deliberate – a trip to Dublin for my first Cat Power experience.

I first encountered her through a much-loved (and favourite of The Double Negative) album – What’s Up Matador. A record that probably had the biggest impact on our collective musical landscaping for years to come.

Released in 1997, this album swooped in to move us from our Britpop stained consciousness and exposed us to amazing artists that would become the foundations of our musical ideology for years to come. Bands like  Superchunk, Spoon, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Frogs and Guided by Voices.

“In an album loaded with classics, a song called Nude as the News by an unheard of Cat Power stood out”

Somehow, in an album loaded with classics, a song called Nude as the News by an unheard of Cat Power stood out.

I wanted more. The What’s Up Matador liner notes pointed out the track came from Cat Power’s 3rd album, What Would the Community Think. After traipsing down to the old HMV I started flicking through the ‘C’ section and there it was – one lonely but beautiful digipack copy of the album. Of course I purchased it straight away and 15 years later it’s still one of my favourite albums of all time.

Being the late 90s, and therefore pre-internet, sourcing her older albums proved to be a little trickier. I’d all but given up finding a copy of debut album Dear Sir. I scoured every record store in every town to no avail. It wasn’t until life took me to Montreal that I finally managed to get my hands on that album; much more raw than I’d been accustomed to on the strained, soulful beauty of ‘Community’.

With definite influences from the lo-fi/college rock NY scene that birthed Cat Power , it took a few years for Dear Sir to have the same impact as ‘Community’, but it’s now another album I look back on fondly. As was the 2nd record, Myra Lee. Released in 1996, the same year as What Would the Community Think, it made an enjoyable segue into the Cat Power sound that first gained my attention.

Now, being a massive fan of underground American musicians is all well and good but it wasn’t so great if you wanted to see these bands live. Even after gaining some critical attention via 1998s amazing Moon Pix, Cat Power UK shows were few and far between. I remember seeing an advert in a music mag for a show at Dingwalls in Camden Town, in which Cat Power was the support act (I don’t recall the ‘main’ band). Excruciatingly this was a few months after I moved away from London, a time when I had actually worked at the very same venue.

“Utilising her remarkably sparse vocals, never had an album been so beautiful in its own solitude”

Gutted, my love of Cat Power’s music did not wane. In fact, quite the opposite. Cat Power had become my band. The exquisite The Covers Record was released in 2000. Gaining immediate attention through the stripped back cover of The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, it was a ballsy album. Utilising her remarkably sparse vocals, with self-contained acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment, never had an album been so beautiful in its own solitude.

It was on the back of The Covers Record that Cat Power announced a tour. Well kinda. Three UK dates: London, Leicester and Glasgow.  Hmmm, why can’t this girl play near me? But wait, nestled alongside the UK dates, was a show scheduled for Dublin. Thanks to blossoming no frills airlines (and the Internet), I managed to convince my girlfriend at the time that we should venture to Ireland for a break.

In recent years much has been made of Chan Marshall’s fragile mind. Past alcohol and substance dependencies seem to form the back bone of any interview or article penned about Ms Marshall. There’s no escaping it. On 22 June 2003, in a small, sweaty Dublin venue named Whelans, I witnessed why these traits would become such a dominating factor in years to come. Matador Records own message board still contains a post from a gig-goer that night which pretty much sums up my own experience of what was a painful yet mesmerising experience to be part of.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit perplexed by what I’d just seen. Never the less, hidden amongst the chaos and heartbreak on show was that spine-chilling beauty that flowed through the albums I so loved. In short sharp bursts we got the Cat Power experience, with tears flowing in happiness and sorrow. To this day it is the most memorable gig I’ve ever been privy to. Whether that’s a good thing I still don’t know.

Despite the small venue, Cat Power wasn’t quite the underground secret I’d been following for years. 6th album You Are Free had been released earlier that year to massive critical acclaim. Once more Cat Power had used her voice as a stunning centre piece, but at the same time her music had become more accessible with everybody from hipsters to rock kids being taken in by its purity.

With this sudden increase in popularity come more tours, with bigger and bigger venues on each occasion. All shows had more contained performances, evolving from a shy ‘hiding behind her hair’ gig at the South Bank Centre, through a full band showing in the Shepperds Bush Empire, to an outlandish 360 turnaround confident front-woman with full band at the Round House. The later show in support of 2006 album The Greatest.

Losing the intimacy provided by earlier Cat Power albums and shows, it was a sharp shift to my sensibilities. This was further enhanced by my last Cat Power experience. Finally she was to play somewhere that didn’t involve me forking out on flight and hotels. Sadly it was to be in the Manchester Academy 1, probably the most soulless venue on Earth. Performing songs from her lacklustre 2nd covers album, Jukebox, didn’t help matters. Not one to remember.

So here we are in 2012, complete with Cat Power’s first album of original material for 6 years, Sun. Upon first listen I was bowled over by its bravery. Unidentifiable from the Cat Power of old, but it’s great to see such a wonderful artist making music on their own terms.  Embracing electronica for the first time it’s an intriguing listen that suggests we have a musician, at last, comfortable in her own skin.

…and a gig in Liverpool wouldn’t go a-miss.

Marc Hall

Image courtesy Stefano Giovannini

Posted on 28/09/2012 by thedoublenegative