Behold The Power Of Cat

by | Jan 22, 2006

Ben Ratliff for TNYT: Chan Marshall, who records under the name Cat Power, and Beth Orton, are among the best slacker divas. Both have similar-sounding, slouchy-beautiful, middle-range voices. Both are about 10 years into their careers. Each has an exceptional new album: “The Greatest” by Ms. Marshall (Matador Records), which comes out next week, and Ms. Orton’s “Comfort of Strangers” (Astralwerks), to be released Feb. 7. In both cases, the artists have changed bands, changed sounds and dropped some of their pretenses, though luckily for us, not all of them. In both cases, these albums are the best work of their lives.

Chan Marshall is the rare female pop singer who hides her own attractiveness. She has a large audience by the standards of indie rock, though no one could accuse her of being popular. Ms. Marshall started playing guitar at 19, formed Cat Power when she was 20, and in 1995, at 22, made an EP as a trio with the guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth’s drummer, Steve Shelley, called “Dear Sir.”

Hers was a hurt, disembodied, voice, operating on lulling frequencies over draggy tempos, like old Neil Young without the sense of direction. She sang about being all jammed up inside, about counterintuition, things adding up to nothing. (Consequently, she found a devoted audience among college-aged listeners.) She didn’t convey defiance or rejuvenation or youthful suffering. She just sounded like she was blankly persevering.

Her songs seemed to ignore linear time. They could be beautiful for a minute, and then fall off the aesthetic grid, like music from some dim point in the future, after there had ceased to be any point in making music.