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Friday, August 5, 2016

Cat Power: Myra Lee

CAT POWER: MYRA LEE (1996)

1) Enough; 2) We All Die; 3) Great Expectations; 4) Top Expert; 5) Ice Water; 6) Still In Love; 7) Rockets; 8) Faces; 9) Fiance; 10) Wealthy Man; 11) Not What You Want.

From a brief preliminary introduction, welcome to the full-length presentation of Cat Power, symbolically named after her mother, who, according to some accounts, may have been even whackier than her daughter — which accounts for some of the album's weirdness, but far from all of it. As I already mentioned, these tracks were recorded at the same time as the ones for Dear Sir, and there is even some redundancy (ʽRocketsʼ is found on both albums, and ʽGreat Expec­tationsʼ would later be appended to reissues of Dear Sir, although it was not present on the ori­ginal pressing), but this here is a larger and slightly more diverse collection, giving you a more comprehensive portrait of Chan Marshall in her early days, provided you're really interested.

In all fairness, though, there is not much to add to the review of Dear Sir: the thing that matters most about this record is still atmosphere and attitude, and they are predictably the same — Chan Marshall is still walking the nighttime streets of a post-nuclear-apocalyptic city in a state of com­plete trance and mental meltdown, singing songs that feel like barely regulated streams of con­scious and are just as memorable as any such stream. Some people fall for that very easily, but I remain spoiled by great women in music who could drive themselves to similar states, yet remain either far more intriguing and unpredictable in terms of melody (Joni Mitchell), or far more im­pressive as emotional powerhouses (Patti Smith). Marshall, unfortunately, does not do either: her melodies here are replete with boring Sonic Youth-isms, and her personal charisma is... well, on the level of «passable» when she is mumbling and «annoying» when she is screaming.

Nevertheless, at least a few of the tracks at least stand out against the general background, which is more than could be said about Dear Sir. In particular, ʽWe All Dieʼ, based on a fatalistic descending guitar/bass riff and a sonic arrangement that brings to mind Tom Waits' Bone Machine, has a gritty punch that helps the song's frozen chorus of "hell, we all die sometimes, hell, we all try somewhere" get under your skin, rather than just sit there as one more of those pretentious and ultimately useless statements. (The only other track that has a loud, tough rhyth­mic base is ʽTop Expertʼ, but there the musical backbone is quite unexceptional). And as a fun gimmick, you have an «expressionist singer-songwriter deconstruction» of Hank Williams' ʽStill In Love With Youʼ — a first-rate example of how one can take a super-catchy country tune, suck all the hooks out of it, and transform it into «pure feeling» because the notion of catchiness is, you know, so ugly and anti-artistic. See, she is doing Hank a big service — we all know Hank was a genius, but he happened to write songs that intentionally got stuck in your head, which is very anti-life-like, because, see, you usually go through life without its experiences constantly sticking in your head, so what Chan is doing here is, she's preserving the genius but she's also making it more life-like and spontaneous and honest. Fuck form, just save the spirit. (By the way, she sings it so low that I'm almost dying to learn if it couldn't make a bigger impression on me if it were sung by the late Nico, who must have been a big influence on Cat Power anyway).

Further individual comments on particular songs would make no sense — it's all about droning repetition and half-sung, half-mumbled repetition of poetry that I find highly questionable and, what is worse, devoid of genuine magic. The whole thing reaches an absolute nadir on ʽNot What You Wantʼ, a stripped-down performance (just vocals and acoustic guitar) recorded in abysmal lo-fi quality and featuring all the trademark qualities of generic indie shit (poorly tuned and barely played guitar; rough singing that regularly turns to off-key screaming; and a message of self-assertion that apparently tries to seduce us with the «realism» of what is going on). Fortuna­tely, the rest of the album is much better produced, played, and sung, so we'd have to assume that the song was a last-minute addition of some unfinished and unpolished demo, to give the album a rougher edge (I'd recommend just stopping it at the end of ʽWealthy Manʼ, though).

In brief, Myra Lee runs on «honesty» (that is, if you accept the whole vibe as honest, which is your personal choice) and «spontaneity» more than anything else, so proceed at your own risk; I do not condemn the record for the same reasons I did not feel disgusted about Dear Sir (and one key point here is the near-complete lack of wallowing in self-pity, which, to me, is an immediate turn-off in the case of such records — see Conor Oberst for an extreme case), but I certainly do not regard it as much of an improvement, either.

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