CAT POWER: MOON PIX (1998)
1) American Flag; 2) He Turns Down; 3) No Sense; 4) Say; 5) Metal Heart; 6) Back Of Your Head; 7) Moonshiner; 8) You May Know Him; 9) Colors And The Kids; 10) Cross Bones Style; 11) Peking Saint.
This is it, the moment of truth — if you don't like Moon Pix, you're probably more of a dog power than a cat power person; and if you like, but don't love Moon Pix (like I do), you must have serious problems with quite a lot of modern musical art, because Moon Pix is really it: a record that is modern-artsy to the extreme, a set of semi-improvisational, stream-of-consciousness-like rambling confessions that sound like they were recorded in a hazy trance. In fact, I don't know about «recorded», but legend has it that many of the songs were written by Chan in one night under the influence of a disturbing nightmare, involving dark spirits and demons and all sorts of stuff that, you know, can sometimes happen to a girl from Georgia overdosing on New York City. Perhaps that is why the album is called Moon Pix, even if the only song on the album with a direct reference to ʽmoonʼ is ʽMoonshinerʼ, and that's a different kind of moon.
Anyway, if I were a mean, evil person, I would have certainly taken the chance to mock the songwriter on account of a lyric like "It must be the colors / And the kids / That keep me alive / 'Cause the music is boring me to death". Honestly, when listening to Moon Pix, this is precisely the feeling I get — the music is boring me to death, but the colors of the album are what saves it from mediocrity. ʽColors And The Kidsʼ is basically just three piano chords put on repeat for about six and a half minutes, and her voice, fading in and out of the picture, sometimes cracking from excessive emotionality and sometimes dissipating from lack of training, is no great shakes either — but the first thing you realize with surprise is that somehow, this does not annoy your aural nerves (the only thing that does annoy me a bit is the sound of the piano lid closing at the end: cheap trick! cheap trick!), and from there, you can slowly build up appreciation for the odd atmosphere that she constructs, that good old optimistic pessimism, or pessimistic optimism, whatever, with just a touch of laziness and apathy because, you know, the universe is expanding or something like that, so what does everything else matter?
My biggest problem is that, even though she is now in Australia and recording with a completely different band, and the production is relatively hi-fi and the instrumentation relatively diverse (there's even a separate flute player), the music is still not up to par — mostly standard folk and blues patterns without any innovative or personal touches — and that, for all her talent, Chan is still refusing to take singing lessons, metaphorically speaking. I know I should be falling over my head with songs like ʽMetal Heartʼ and ʽCross Bones Styleʼ, but I am unable to perceive them as «magical», like so many fans do — pleasant, yes, mildly disturbing, yes, but nothing that would cut across the heart like a razorblade. Even ʽCross Bones Styleʼ, which is supposedly a dark folk lament over the horrible fates of diamond miners in South Africa (impossible to tell from the lyrics, but you can tell the song is mournful and disturbing), basically just rolls by like a chilly breeze — some jangly drony acoustic chords, some double-tracked folksy harmonies with high-low modulation, nothing too flashy and absolutely no secrets to come undone over the course of repeated listens. And repeated listens are necessary, because eventually you come to realize that the only source of real dread and creepiness would be the normality of it all — the total lack of any sort of flashy sonics or production gimmicks. Not that this wasn't the case with her previous records as well; it's just that Moon Pix is a clear step forward in terms of sonics and production, and since there are more instruments and some actual musicians backing her this time, you'd think you could expect something different, but no! You can't, really.
Actually, you know, I'm not exactly right when I speak about a lack of gimmicks — every reviewer of Moon Pix feels it necessary to remind the reader of the backwards drum loop on ʽAmerican Flagʼ that was, believe it or not, sampled from the Beastie Boys' ʽPaul Revereʼ (but why?); or of Belinda Woods' flute work on the folk ballad ʽHe Turns Downʼ (pretty, but quite low in the mix, and not really making much of a difference); or of the thunder bursts on ʽSayʼ, which make you feel locked up for safety in the room with the artist while nature is having a wild ball on the outside... but then again, almost every song on the album feels private and intimate anyway. So, essentially, the gimmicks are there, but they just don't matter.
What matters is the combination of largely predictable, though tasteful, folk and blues patterns, hookless vocals, ambiguous lyrics, and morose atmosphere. The one album that somehow springs to mind in connection with this is not even by a female artist — it is Nick Drake's Pink Moon, and guess what, I didn't even realize when I thought of it that it also had the word "moon" in the title. The difference being that Nick played a better guitar, had a better singing voice, wrote better songs, and could work that "don't-mind-me-I'm-just-humming-this-tune-in-the-corner" vibe much more efficiently than Chan Marshall, who can still occasionally come across as too narcissistic. Still, she's got one on him at least — she sounds a bit more human and relatable, whereas Nick was basically a Christ-like figure: you didn't really have a good idea of how to approach him, how to address him, whether he shits rose petals etc. — tons of mystery. This is where Marshall's «ordinariness» in terms of playing and singing really works well for her.
I give the record a thumbs up because I appreciate the rugged charisma, the lyrical originality, and the unquestionable progress in «formal» terms (more stylistic diversity, better production, interesting bits of studio experimentation), but I do wish that something more would remain in my head than the line "Yellow hair, you're a funny bear" that somehow got me trapped in a love-hate relationship — moving, yes, but also sounding a bit like the blueprint for everything that I hate about SIKC (Sentimental Indie Kid Culture), you know, that part of the universe where you have to get sad only because it's a sin to be happy, or, even worse, when all the bad things around you are only used as a pretext to get sad, because Sad is Cool. In other words, color me unconvinced — on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate the sadness of Moon Pix about 4 or 5 («not irritating because the person sounds nice, not genuinely moving because the feel is an artificial one»). But that's just because I'm fairly jaded on sadness, I guess.