Thursday, November 29, 2012

Album Review: Cat Power - Sun (2012)

I’ve never really been a big fan of Cat Power. I enjoyed her album The Greatest from a few years back but generally Chan Marshall’s voice does nothing for me, and more often than not it has been her more bluesy work that has appealed the most – her husky vocal providing a perfect foil for the heavier sounds that particular genre inspires. One or two of her cover versions from earlier albums also held some attraction, but on the whole, I’ve always felt Cat Power albums were a touch on the boring side of bland (hey, I’m trying to be kind).

Sun, Cat Power’s 2012 full-length effort, all but abandons the blues in favour of a more pop-orientated approach ... and surprisingly enough (for me), it seems to work much better than I had anticipated. The album certainly appeals as perhaps the most intimate and original release of her career, the songwriting in particular being a key strength on this one. And the lyrics feel as though they come from a deeply personal place as Marshall sets out to offer insight into some of the more peculiar elements of the human condition. Even a cursory glance at a few of the song titles – ‘Always On My Own’, ‘Real Life’, ‘Human Being’ – tends to confirm as much.

I guess it is Marshall’s lack of vocal range that has irritated me most of all on past work, but on Sun she disguises those limitations well, and the album’s wider pop sensibility and superb instrumentation offers some respite there. It is because those pop hooks are subtle rather than generic or obvious that it works so well, and more generally, the album comes across as a cohesive piece of work.

The variety of styles on Sun – from slow electro to harder-edged rock – also ensures that boredom is never the factor it has been in the past and I found myself pretty much fully engaged from start to finish. There’s a real tension, a feeling of anxiety even, that permeates across the whole thing, even if it remains difficult to pinpoint exactly where that sense of angst comes from.

The best tracks include the opening sequence/quartet of ‘Cherokee’, ‘Sun’, ‘Ruin’ (the lead single), and the infectious ‘3,6,9’, but the journey remains enjoyable enough throughout; ‘Human Being’ provides a real highlight midway through, and look out too for the suitably restrained cameo performance of one Iggy Pop on the near 11-minute epic ‘Nothin’ But Time’ – a track that genuinely sounds like something a prime period Rolling Stones could have made their own circa 1972.

Overall, this is a surprisingly strong album and a very enjoyable listen. And while it doesn’t really alter my feelings of indifference about Cat Power’s earlier body of work, or make me a convert, Sun is a good one, a keeper, and it probably qualifies as Marshall’s most consistent effort to date.

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