Sunday, December 3, 2006
Cat Power—The Greatest
After years of stumbling across reviews of her, all tinged with a certain nimbus of fascinated horror like the backflaps of the Oscar Wilde books I used to pull off my father's bookshelves ("talented, yes, but so personally distressing!"), I finally sprang for "The Greatest." My first reaction was disappointment—I always hope women who come with a reputation like this will simply rip the top off things, but instead the CD starts off with a dirge-like piano floating on a wave of over-orchestrated strings vaguely redolent of "Moon River." Repeated listenings, though, convince me that she is perhaps the eeriest pop vocalist I've ever heard. She has an unexpectedly husky voice for someone so frail looking, with a slight gospel-blues coloring that places her ambiguously along the racial spectrum, but most of all it's the incredibly intimate feeling her voice conjures up. Despite the presence of backing musicians, and elliptical lyrics that suggest deeply personal associations without spelling them out, listening to her is an almost voyeuristic thrill, like pausing under the window of a musician playing for herself alone in the middle of the night. I'm reminded of Laura Nyro, sometimes of Tom Waits, sometimes of Lucinda Williams, sometimes of Townes Van Zandt—all highly ideosyncratic singer/songwriters with a strong melodic streak who made/make their perilous ways along the edge of the pit of American popular music. Over the last three listenings, I've become fixated on "Willie," a dreamily lilting piano piece that tells the story of a hopeless loser, or perhaps a winner despite it all, or perhaps it's all about her . . . it's hard to tell. She has the ability to give wispy lyrics the feeling of enormous import. It's a particular talent, to render a line like "I'm on the same side as you / I'm just a little bit behind" so that you want to weep when you hear it, and each time you hear it, you want to weep even more.