Cat Power

By Demented Toddler

When you're music shopping on Amazon, helpful lists appear down the side, offering more in the same vein. Next to Cat Power's albums, the lists have titles like 'music to lie on the floor in your underwear to', 'my all-time emotive list in no order at all', and the hilarious 'Music to kill yourself to... part deux'. Her recordings may well be ripe for appropriation by the sort of people who compile such lists, but that doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't be allowed to listen to it as well. A maker of what she calls 'elementary... one plus one' music, Chan Marshall (Cat Power's real name – her stage moniker was picked off a Caterpillar company hat worn by an audience member at an early gig) has a remarkable ear for lyrics, both as a writer of original material, and cover artist. This is evident on her most recent two albums, 2000's The Covers Record, and 2003's You Are Free, the best of her self-penned work to date.

Notorious, and celebrated, for bizarre, sometimes painfully shy live performances, Chan (pronounced Shawn, faux-pas-avoidance fans) takes to the stage singing Sittin on a Ruin...' It's just her and a guitar, and a half finished beer. She will alternate between sitting centre-stage, half-hidden under her dark fringe, and turned away to the side, playing the piano. 'You know that new song, Sittin on a Ruin? It's called Sittin on a Ruin. It's by that new band, Sittin on a Ruin. They're on Sittin on a Ruin Records. You can get it on Sittinonaruin.com.' This establishes early on that some of her marbles may have been misplaced.

She sings some of Sittin on a Ruin, appearing to make it up as she goes along, always sailing the right side of Phoebe-from-friends mode. Her voice is very beautiful, the words are clear, but in person, there is an emphasis to her breathing, to the finishing of words and lines that is not so present in the studio work. She is more halting than lilting, which has the potential to change the understanding of a song unexpectedly. Her subtle turning of the ends of words and lines turn them to her own ends. Sittin on a Ruin continues. 'There's a hip hop version,' she says, 'with DMX'. The song continues, this time punctuated by Marshall's version of the rapper's signature barks. The audience laughs, nervously. Nobody wants her to cry, or storm off stage, or do anything too weird. Oh, maybe they do.

'I was just going to sing something about loving Zanex...' she offers, 'but I thought maybe that would be wrong.' Instead, she sings Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Wolf Among Wolves, changing 'man among men' for 'women among men'. 'Why can't I be loved as what I am?' This is one of the highlights of the evening. She segues into her own I Don't Blame You, which suffers not at all in the juxtaposition. 'You were swinging your guitar around / because they wanted to hear that sound / but you didn't want to play...' The reverent hush continues, commanded by her unpredictable stage presence, and the idea, not least in the tension between the words and their delivery, of something only just restrained.

She plays Sophisticated Lady (which she did live on a John Peel show in 2000) at the piano, 'smoking, drinking, never thinking'. In the quiet, her working of the pedal acts as echoey percussion. She returns to the guitar, tucks the fag between the strings, and carries on. Between songs, she raspberry-sighs into the microphone, tells curious knock knock jokes. Towards the end, the real gem comes in the altered shape of the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction, from The Covers Record. On first listen to the album, Marshall's verses-only version is so different that it's virtually unrecognisable. Made almost completely her own, it makes the original sound positively satisfied and satisfying. Here, we are treated to a few rare snatches of the chorus.

Much of what she sings, and the way it is presented, thinks about, and agonises over, what it is to be an artist. This doesn't seem pretentious, or narcissistic, but genuine, thoughtfully expressed. The effect she has, live, is one which must convey something of what she feels as a performer to the audience. It seems little accident that the first lines of I Don't Blame You rhyme 'stage' with 'rage'. Throughout the show, she calls for the lights to be turned up on the audience, down on her. 'We can't see you anymore!' Someone calls out. 'You're amazing, show us!' someone shouts, maybe the same person. Chan lights a cigarette, apparently nonchalant, makes some incoherent response. 'I can't...' Her audience are at once unnerved and desperately attracted, keen to keep her onstage, in subdued panic that she will leave. When she does, it is abrupt, inevitably disappointing. She clearly won't entertain the idea of an encore. Maybe she has lost her temper. 'You have to leave because the government will attack...walk out like a flower.'
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