CAT POWER: WHAT WOULD THE COMMUNITY THINK (1996)
1) In This Hole; 2) Good Clean Fun; 3) What Would The Community Think; 4) Nude As The News; 5) They Tell Me; 6) Taking People; 7) Fate Of The Human Carbine; 8) King Rides By; 9) Bathysphere; 10) Water & Air; 11) Enough; 12) The Coat Is Always On.
Well, I certainly cannot vouch for the community, but I think that Chan Marshall's third album is a definite improvement on the first two — unfortunately, still not nearly enough to make me experience it as a piece of music rather than a series of dramatic monologues delivered in quasi-musical form. She's almost getting there: the production is cleaner, the musical influences get more diverse, and a small bunch of the tracks show signs of distinguishable melodies, although there's nothing particularly curious or outstanding about them. However, it's really not about the music, it's more of a «okay, for this particular text and mood I'd need some country flavor», «this is a pissed-off manifesto that requires a bit of grungy guitar», «here I'm being icily somnambulant, so just a few quiet acoustic chords will do» etc. sort of a thing.
The progression is most obviously sensed when you compare the original recording of ʽEnoughʼ with the new version on this album — the acoustic melody is more complex and focused, the drums add extra punch, the vocals are more disciplined and singing-oriented; the essence, however, stays precisely the same, so essentially the difference is simply that we're moving into the world of hi-fi from the world of lo-fi, which is almost always a plus in my opinion (I'd say that in indie rock, there is maybe one case out of a hundred when the lo-fi approach truly works better than a hi-fi one), but compositional progress is still non-existent.
As for the atmosphere, well, extra cleanness of sound has not influenced it one bit. Remember, in the previous review, I'd already said that the simplest impression that Cat Power music gives us is that of the last survivor walking around the ruins in a post-nuclear world? Well, that feeling certainly does not dissipate once you hear the femme fatale muttering "After this there will be no one, after this there will be no one" to the sound of a dark folk acoustic guitar on ʽGood Clean Funʼ. Of course, when you start drilling the lyrics, you realize that she is really singing about a breakup (not a surprise), but honestly, I'd rather not start drilling the lyrics. The good news is, she manages to conjure a kind of gothic atmosphere without formally sounding gothic, and as for the lyrics, either I'm too culturally backwards to get their greatness or they are, in fact, merely a stream of conscious where a small handful of brilliant lines has to be picked out of a huge amount of meaningless, association-less verbal chaff ("after this there will be hats on different bodies, after this there will be no more beautiful dresses" certainly sounds like chaff to me).
The most «important» track on the album, chosen for release as a single and also accompanied by the singer's first ever music video, was ʽNude As The Newsʼ, apparently dealing with memories of an abortion she had in 1992 — another good subject to wrap up in a desensitized post-nuclear atmospheric blanket. The song does have arguably the most memorable chorus on the album — the plaintive "Jackson, Jesse, I've got a son in me!"; apparently, «Jackson» and «Jesse» are the names of Patti Smith's children, so the ensuing "he's related to you, he's waiting to meet you" is supposed to emphasize the spiritual closeness between Chan and Patti (yes, as if we needed yet another confirmation of the obvious fact that Chan Marshall worships at the altar of P. S.). The overall sentiment is one of sorrowful guilt, though she never blames herself explicitly, and there's a kind of strained tension in the song that really puts it on top of everything else — yet, at the same time, something still turns me off. Maybe it's the generic whiney overtones that appear in her voice every time she raises it to a painful scream; in such moments, she's not that different from your average Courtney Love, I'd say.
The voice may actually be a bigger problem — now that the production is cleaner and overall muddiness of the sound is no longer an acceptable excuse, tunes that rely almost exclusively on the alleged hypnotic qualities of the lady's voice (like the two-chord folk-blues vamp of ʽThey Tell Meʼ) will depend on whether you are ready to forgive her rather ordinary timbre, her complete lack of vocal training, and her impaired ability to sustain high notes because of the, you know, verbally undescribable magic in the way she strings those corrupted notes together. Personally, I confess to occasionally cringing when she bums one of these high notes (ʽWater & Airʼ is particularly awful in that respect), and actually prefer those tunes that are more fully arranged, so there's at least something between her «raw» vocalizing and my ears (as in the peaceful alt-rocker ʽTaking Peopleʼ, with its loud rhythm section). Even that does not always help: ʽWater & Airʼ, for instance, has an experimental scrapy cello part in the place of a lead counter-melody, but the screechy vocals still ruin the song whenever they can — and on the cover of Bill Calahan's ʽBathysphereʼ, there's a weird bleeping synth pattern superimposed on the acoustic rhythm (why? does it have anything to do with the functioning of the bathysphere?), which throws in a novelty component, but when she goes falsetto (actually, crack-hiss-falsetto) on "set me free", I just don't care any more. Novelty or not, lady, but with dirty tricks like these, you're not really fit to step into the shoes of Patti Smith.
Overall, there's definitely some progress here, but it's a bit like trying to improve on an old B-movie by remastering it in high definition — so now you have all its pluses and all its minuses in much clearer focus. A record that shows potential, sure enough, and space for improvement, and some talent and some creativity and some genuine atmospherics, yet certainly not the masterpiece of contemporary sonic art that the trendy hip people would have been looking for in 1996. Again, the only thing that really makes me happy here is that she could have very easily remained fully wedged in this formula — surely there'd be enough happy people to lap it up for half a dozen more times with exactly the same ingredients — yet she did not, and so on we go.