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Cat Power - You Are Free

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Artist: Cat Power

Album: You Are Free

Label: Matador

Review date: Feb. 5, 2003

Cat Power Activate

On first listen, it doesn't seem that incredible. You bought the CD on a glowing recommendation, looking for a new sound. It’s sparse, sad, kind of predictable.

And then, somewhere halfway through the CD, something happens. There's that line, that flawed delivery, that subtle melody, and you think "yeah."


And that's how it happens, the world over, for many Cat Power fans. There's nothing to spread the word, no Random Notes, nothing Buzzworthy, no six-month North American tour. Just the CD, selling slowly but consistently, week after week, never sounding old or out-of-date because of its immense originality.

And it seems she came from nowhere. With that great name, Cat Power. Suddenly, people were Cat Power this and Cat Power that, and soon enough she was the talk of New York, then Minneapolis, then San Diego.

In truth, a younger Cat Power [Charlen-Marie "Chan" Marshall] went from southern town to southern town, wherever her stepfather's mag wheel business took them. Witnessing those southern scenes, making and breaking friendships, hearing Otis Redding through thin walls. And learning somewhere along the way that the commonality of people lies not in fleeting joy, but in the consistent sorrow of life.

That sound, the mournful Cat Power sound, has its detractors. Boring. Plain. Unchanging. It's surely a sound that people either worship or cannot stand. But if you like it, you're into it. Way into it.

For those expecting some sort of departure record, You Are Free isn't it. The early reports of Eddie Vedder's appearance, and Dave Grohl's drumming, and Adam Kaspar's ( of Soundgarden) production might have told you different, but this is a Cat Power release through and through.

Some elements are more present. Songs creep along, then burst restlessly. Chords slide up and down necks a little louder. Often, her voice seems to be coming from a cathedral balcony. Occasionally, it's whispering in your ear. But it still wails and still pants. Grohl's innate precision adds stability, the string arrangements are delightful, but Marshall's immensely personal delivery and lyrical simplicity stand far in front of it all.

As in the opening song, "I Don't Blame You" an ode to a conflicted rock star, wherein she takes comfort in their indifference. "But you didn't want to play," she sings "and I don't blame you." It sets the tone for the album (most tracks are simply Marshall with guitar or piano). The rockers, "Free," "Shaking Paper," "Speak For Me" and particularly "He War," are bold, churning numbers. In that sense, You Are Free almost has two disparate styles, and that would be the criticism here. Yet that's the result of her particular mania: stand up, shout then quickly retreat to your seat and hide your face.

Without these Young-ian exceptions, You Are Free would be an immensely sad record. Even Marshall's take on John Lee Hooker ("Keep On Running") becomes a somber meditation on restlessness. "Baby Doll," puts this sadness inside a more proper Delta Blues framework but with Leonard Cohen stanzas. And throughout, freedom is invoked again and again; as a triumphal union ("Free"), a liberating aspiration ("Maybe Not") or an unobtainable state ("Baby Doll"). And the title is more perplexing on each listen.

There is many a glance-grabbing moment to snag the senses. But six songs in on "Fool," one of the best songs Marshall's ever written, we get: "You take a direct hit to your senses / And you're disconnected / It's not that its bad / It's not that its dead / It's just that its on the tip of your tongue / And you're so silent."


By David Day

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