The Freelance Mentalists.
Monday, March 10, 2008
  The Record to Beat in '08
Cat Power's Jukebox. I used to find her tiresome, but she's not
overplaying the waif card here, even though this probably her most
romantic album, her most truly atmospheric, because in order to have
an atmosphere, you gotta have gravity, from the right substance in the
spin. Every time the music starts, her voice first reaches me as a dry
ice smoke ring 'round the moon, over the shining spine of historee
(great and good old and newer songs coming together, and coming up in
just a minute) with a vivid poise that keeps her from sounding too
earnest: it's just the right, sensuous sound (especially as it moves
through her musical companions' reverb, echo and grooves) for her
cosmic quest, for romantic and spiritual fulfillment. ( Janis Joplin
answered, when asked what Today's Youth are looking for: "Sincerity,
and a good time." Hey hay hey.) The confidence as well as
sensitivity—so of course "New York New York," with just a simple
adjustment of its seatbelt, should have this tensile lope and sway,
backbeating right past Radio City rinky-tink, with ingenue still in
tow/charge. She's totally at home with the Dirty Dozen Blues Band,
especially drummer Jim White, of the Dirty Three and recent,
noteworthy collabs with Nina Natashia; Judah Bauer of the Jon Spencer
Blues Explosion(! But he does not play no fratblooze here) is also
aboard (with Eric Papparozzi on bass and Greg Foreman's keyboards),
but this little combo is less like a blues band is usually expected to
be, more like rockers who have learned much from the Hi Rhythm
Section, in terms of taut, spare punctuation and momentum, fitting
Chan Marshall's vibrant reveries perfectly (the one time she holds
back a bit, seemingly getting lost, on "A Woman Left Lonely,"
Foreman's electric piano tremolo gets more emphatic, rallying her,
appropriately for a song about a woman who's coming back from
rejection). The sequence of tracks is very effective: after "New York
New York," Hank Williams' "Ramblin Man" is recast as "Ramblin' Woman,"
and the original's melodramatic, spooked compulsion is tempered by a
certain expansiveness: she knows this kind of journey is where she's
meant to be, not that it doesn't matter who and what she finds. A new
version of her "Metal Heart" follows, with a confrontation, a note to
self and other, that steadfastness , mettle and "metal" is in the
sound, not heavy metal, but the electricity moving through natural
elements, 20th Century engine-uity revving up again in these old
songs, which sound as timely as ever. The sleek, starlit,
meta-metal's also there in Lee Clayton's "Silver Stallion" which
practical-minded Cowgirl Chan leads from mythology or decoration, out
into her own prospects, and "Aretha" is wistfully, unpretentiously
invoked, to re-inspire her lover and herself, also (as repeated
listenings reward), I think of this as prefiguring later songs, as I
relate it to Dylan's line from Tarantuala, "Aretha, crystal jukebox
queen (the album's title from this?), I shall play you as my trump
card." I think of that because I know she'll reach Dylan's own "I
Believe In You," with Bauer accentuating the Stonesy riff with which
Dylan foresaw "Start Me Up," and White's drum leaps develop a hip hop
cast, kicking off the mud of a town through which one proud outcast
searches for another. Marshall's own "Song For Bobby, " reminiscing
about various near-misses with the Master, could easily be gushy, but
she's even too grown-up for that now. She strikingly connects
Dylanesque phrasing to Billie Holiday's, on the latter's "Hush Now
(Don't Explain)," reminding me of D. 's description of his later songs
as "overlapping phrases on an electrical grid," the overlapping of
expression and reticence, austerity and warmth in the shadows. Which
is also where the hope and fear meet in, Jessie May Hemphill's "Lord
Help," just as "We're all reborn, to face the morning sun." Uh, and so
on, with some surprises: I didn't even recognize Joni Mitchell's
passive-aggressive self-pity/guilt-tripping you-dumped-me classic,
"Blue," at first, cos Chan doesn't imitate her at all! Not even in
this age of girly-swirly chamber folk, not at all (and the band's just
bumpin' at the walls of the break-up, you know it'll all work out as
it should or will). This girl is a woman now! (But not too scary with
it.) ------Don Allred

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