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Friday, July 29, 2016

Cat Power: Dear Sir


1) 3 Times; 2) Rockets; 3) Itchyhead; 4) Yesterday Is Here; 5) The Sleepwalker; 6) Mr. Gallo; 7) No Matter; 8) Great Expectations; 9) Headlights.

"If you want money in your pocket, top hat on your head, hot meal on your table, and a blanket on your bed — come to New York City..." The cover of Tom Waits' ʽYesterday Is Hereʼ was certainly not included by Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, on her debut record by accident — that was precisely the kind of advice she took, moving out of the stifling confines of Atlanta, Georgia, and relocating to New York where her muse would be nurtured under more suitable conditions. Sonic Youth took note of her there, and their drummer, Steve Shelley, eventually got her to sign for the indie label Runt Records, and found her some recording space in a basement on Mott Street — the classic indie setup.

She did sound a lot like a one-woman Sonic Youth in those early days, to be sure. Most of the mate­rial recorded for those sessions (divided between 1995's «tentative» release Dear Sir and the much longer 1996's Myra Lee, which she would consider her proper debut) shares certain defi­nitive features with the band — namely, free-form poetic self-expression riding on a bedrock of dark, grim electric guitar lines inherited from the Velvet Underground, but completely stripped of any resemblance to «pop» textures. On the other hand, words and vocal attitude matter even more for Marshall than for Sonic Youth — here, she clearly and boldly presents herself as a poet first and a musician second, so think Patti Smith, too. Patti Smith backed by Sonic Youth — there, that's a pretty good analogy.

In other words, if you're looking for an interesting melody to take home in a doggy bag, or for a vocal hook that might stick to your brain like a burr to a dog's ass, this record would be about as useful for this purpose as The Natural Sounds Of Wilderness, Vol. 5: Pig Frogs. The only way to enjoy and worship this is a pledge of allegiance to CAT POWER as the new spiritual current that will efficiently spring clean your chakras. Chan Marshall sings like a possessed woman (I get the impression of somebody sitting in a completely immobile position and staring without blinking at the same spot on the wall all the time while the recording is on); writes lyrics that confirm her status as the second coming of Mad Ophelia; and uses those guitars only as black atmospheric accompaniment for the words and nothing else (in which she is aided by second guitarist Tim Foljahn, who adds slightly cleaner and higher lead lines to her gruff rhythm work).

Not surprisingly, Dear Sir is one of those albums where it is hard to imagine any kind of middle ground — you either fall under its spell and give it an A+ or you don't, and give it a Z-. To avoid extreme lines of thinking, I will take the cowardly way out and say that it is, after all, only a first attempt from a beginning songwriter (although she was already 23 years old when it was released, and had already been playing, singing, and writing for a good five years or so, first in Atlanta and then in NYC). This makes it easier to forgive the sometimes annoyingly cryptic or pretentious nature of her poetry, although it does not make the «tunes» more enjoyable — the biggest prob­lem is that, unlike Patti Smith, Chan rarely goes for any brutal, hit-'em-with-all-you-got frontal assaults on the listener. Most of the lyrics are either mumbled or strung out in shrill, whiny over­tones; and even when she is deliberately being punkish and going all Bikini Kill-ish on our asses (ʽItchyheadʼ), well, the effort is respectable, but the effect is underwhelming — lo-fi production being one reason for this, of course, but also I don't truly feel as if the singer herself is really sure of what it is she is trying to communicate. I can understand she had a pretty tough Georgian childhood, and that her attitude towards the world is anything but friendly ("If I got myself a gun / Then I could shoot down everyone / Maybe I've just invented some religion", she sings four years prior to the Columbine massacre), but it is never made quite clear what really is the prob­lem, or the supposed remedy.

Anyway, bottomline is: these days, Cat Power is largely respected for her musical achievements, but the musical achievements of Dear Sir are practically non-existent — above all, this is a set of atmospheric soundscapes where a seemingly not very unhappy and not very frustrated artist is trying to evocate feelings of extreme unhappiness and frustration. Curious, but I'd still take Patti Smith's Horses over this any time. Or maybe I just don't get serious American street poetry of the past quarter century, period.

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