Cat Power - The Greatest

As January was winding down and I was wandering around the internet, wading through the eMusic archives and this month's Pitchfork reviews, I felt that January didn't bring much music worth talking about. I gave up and found an interesting artist on an eMusic "dozens" list named Cat Power, a.k.a. Chan Marshall. I downloaded her 2003 album You are Free and became an immediate fan. Her sultry, affecting voice delivers somewhat cryptic lyrics that nonetheless bury themselves under your skin. She plays both the piano and guitar with a moody charm that is, though sometimes simplistic, refreshingly original.

Marshall has just released a new album on Matador Records, entitled The Greatest. Though it doesn't quite live up to it's title, The Greatest does randomly arrive at greatness.

Marshall has previously played it safe within the boundaries of indie rock. The Greatest is her seventh effort and is her most accessible to date, owing to the fact that she is joined not by indie musicians but by legendary Memphis session musicians. These guys are strictly professional and have supposedly played for the likes of Al Green, Neil Young, and Aretha Franklin. This professional accessibility - which evokes the label "Starbucks music" to one Blogcritics reviewer - might mean that the indie rock world snubs Marshall. If, however, Marshall does manage to break into the Starbucks scene, mainstream fans are likely to give The Greatest a warm reception.

The Greatest opens with a triumvirate of the album's best three songs (except for "Love and Communication", which I'll get into later). "The Greatest", about somebody's failed aspirations as a boxer, nails it's intended mood with grace and perfection. A melancholy beat drags down the bittersweet, but endearingly elegant strings as Marshall croons "Once I wanted to be the greatest / Two fists of solid rock." The ballad crushes you under it's sincere depiction, both in lyrics and music, of honest remorse and failure. "Living Proof" wipes away the mournful vibe of "The Greatest", picking up the beat and adding a constant whining organ. "Lived in Bars" begins slowly and carefully, but picks up in mid-song, bursting into a celebratory ditty with repetitive horns and "sho-bops". These first three tracks establish the overall emotional mood of the album; a mood of bittersweet regret, disappointment, and nagging - but comfortable - sadness. These three also showcase the Memphis band at it's best.

The band's overindulgences come up in tracks 4 through 10. Only one of these is honestly bad - the baffling "Where is My Love" - but there isn't much to talk about. The exception is "Willie", a cover of Marshall's own 18 minute song "Willie Deadwilder" about the love between Willie Deadwilder and Rebecca. The lyrics are penned in a Dylan-esque storytelling manner and the band maintains a subdued groove enabling Marshall to show off her sultry vocal talents. Other than this the middle of The Greatest is above average (barely) filler. The band strays a bit too deeply into country-tinges and incessant horns while Marshall seemingly runs out of ideas.

Despite the aforementioned mediocrity, I can recommend The Greatest for three very good reasons. Number one and two are, of course, the opening triumvirate and "Willie". Number three is the closing song, "Love and Communication." Dropping the album's mood, which by this point becomes overbearing, it assaults you with heavy guitar (without the wearing country-tinge), a driving beat, and staccato strings. Marshall's voice floats atop the noise sounding more comfortable and natural than at any other moment on the album. I predict "Love and Communication" ending up on a few "best of 2006" lists. If you are looking for a more complete Cat Power album (minus the filler), I would recommend checking out You are Free. Canada phone cards India phone cards France phone cards Russia phone cards UK phone cards USA phone cards Bizon phone card Jupiter calling card Mozart calling card Continental calling card

Collin Herring - The Other Side of Kindness

(originally written for the Boise Weekly)

Alt-country always strikes me as unparalleled in the context of authenticity. Collin Herring, hailed as “the torchbearer for alt-country” by the Dallas Observer (an assertion implying a responsibility that isn't entirely fair), plays his guitar and opens his mouth not to turn heads, but rather because playing music is simply what he does. Before even the first song ends, we understand that playing music is on par for Collin with eating, sleeping, and breathing.

Though there is surely something to be said for this raw authenticity, it does not necessarily equate to a worthwhile sonic experience. Indeed, I'm certain that my high school punk band meant every note of the 'music' that we played. But alas, none of our songs have stood the test of time. On The Other Side of Kindness Herring creates a genuine Americana audio landscape. The music's features are as familiar as the landmarks of the American heartland it evokes. This disc, however, is not entirely an obnoxious recreation of tired and traditional musical sensibilities. Herring's music is anchored by guitars that are comfortable like Grandpa and Grandma's home and is accentuated by strings like breezes over rolling green hills. Excuse the clich├ęs.

While the music borders on run-of-the-mill alt-country, Herring shines through his words and vocal delivery. His voice is honest and occasionally intense – like Conor Oberst if he were more focused and more alt-country (the press release included obscure comparisons such as Husker Du; I had to have my fun too). Infused with just the right dose of twang, Herring's voice delivers down-home lyrics that contain grassroots insight. In 'Cauterize' Herring ponders out loud, “I guess only the lucky pictures turn yellow in a frame. The rest you slide into some dark place where receipts are research to remember where I've been, and bad news leads to interstates.” Within one's personal context words like these can attain a lucidity that is capable of shaking lives.

No matter how I may herald the greatness of today's trendiest music, I can't help but occasionally feel suffocated by the pretentiousness that abounds in both the words and sounds. A musician as unpretentious as Herring is refreshing because he is not the next big thing – he's just doing his thing.

New Years Book #1: Reading Lolita in Tehran


As I've stated previously on this blog, I made a New Year's resolution to read one book for every two weeks of 2006. This won't include my school books (I have to read 75 pages of a book about Brown v. Board by next Tuesday). I'll read two books per month and fit in two more (to make 26; or I may read even more) during times when I have more time on my hands or am reading a smaller book. I'll write a small paragraph about each book I read on this blog. I rationalize writing about words on a music blog by insisting that just as music is breathing, so is literature. Words validate the tedious chore of day-to-day existence. The first book was Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.

I'll put Reading Lolita in Tehran with books like On the Road, Writing Down the Bones, and 1984 on the list of books that have changed my life. Nafisi has inspired and nurtured a love for literature that was already blooming inside me. She taught literature in Iran during the Islamic revolution. It was a strange and turbulent time to read authors like Fitzgerald and James. Her students of opposing ideologies made these works a battlefield while she synthesized the tremendous upheavals of society through this literary lens. She later created, when the revolution was cemented and liberty lost, a secret class to study such authors as Nabokov and Austen. Nafisi's analysis of these works is always bold, surprising, and insightful. Her memories and contemplations on life in Iran are inspiring. Her genuine passion for literature is contagious. This memoir is worth reading even if one is unfamiliar with Iran or these works of fiction.

Upcoming Reviews and Guided by Voices

I visited the Boise Weekly offices today. Along with a copy of a 1975 film entitled The Passenger that I'm assigned to review, I picked up four very varied CDs that ought to each prove interesting, at the very least. Two are from Rock, Paper, and Scissors Inc. Thandiswa arises from the rich cultural post-apartheid music scene of South Africa. Julia Sarr, a Senegalese-Gambian-French singer, collaborates with Patrice Larose, a French flamenco guitarist, on Set Luna. Both of these releases already have me salivating at their exotic setting. These aren't your typical American white male indie releases. The other two, however, are closer to orthodoxy. Collin Herring was called "the torchbearer for alt-country" by the Dallas Observer. Along with that quote in the press release were many others that built Collin up to almost unparalleled proportions. He's got a lot to live up to. The fourth release is packaged very DIY, and is called Salt Lake City by a band called Purr Bats. Their press release opens with "howdy" and doesn't give a clue as to what kind of music awaits me. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that this is some punk rock. We'll see. I bought a fifth CD today that will only be mentioned here (no review): Guided by Voices - Human Amusements at Hourly Rates: The Best of Guided by Voices. This is my introduction to a seemingly legendary band that I've somehow managed to avoid. I'm hearing it right now, and it already sounds like something that might well receive stereo rotation ten years from now. Look for all the aforementioned reviews within the next two weeks.

My Major Decision

It probably would have been more professional to mention this vacation from blogging before I took it, but at that time I didn't know the past couple of weeks would unfold in the fashion they have. I haven't really been on vacation, but I've been putting my mind into matters other than the blog. One of those matters has resulted in me picking a college major to focus on for the next four years: Literature.

A diaspora of people have influenced this recent decision. My former literature teacher, Mrs. Atkins from Borah High School, inspired a love of literature in me that I haven't fully realized until now. My excitement for that class and the books we read, from Homer to Shakespeare and Heart of Darkness to Song of Solomon, has been unparalleled in all of my education. Just before I graduated she made a list of books for me to read. I'm only just beginning to tackle it and it's been too long since I've felt this zeal toward anything but music or politics. Another influential individual, behind a table at some activist event, shared with me the passion of Hugo's Les Miserables. His own passion for the text was contagious, and I immediately needed to read the book. I've since bought it, and will embark through its pages soon. The passion for literature this individual exhibited is a driving force now, and was also injected into me by Azar Nafisi, someone whom I do not even know. I am, however, reading her book Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi remembers Iran through the context of great works of fiction, such as Nabokov, Fitzgerald, and Austen. The passion and urgency with which she learns and teaches from these books stirs my soul. So I've decided; it will be literature.

In light of that, I'm going to incorporate my New Years Resolution into this blog. I decided I'd read at least one book for every two weeks of this year, not including school books. This has nothing to do with music, but it is another form of breathing. Each page becomes as essential as a single breath. Music and literature are both endeavors that let one live, no less important than breathing itself. When I finish Reading Lolita in Tehran, I won't quite review it, but I will contemplate it lightly in this blog. My hope is that, just as I try to spread the word of wondrous music, I can inspire a need to read in someone.

I haven't had any music to review for the past couple of weeks, but I'll be back soon. It's about time for my third in a three part review of Bright Eyes' Vinyl Box Set. I'm visiting the Boise Weekly office tomorrow, where I'll also pick up more CDs to review. I think they have some African music for me, which should prove to be, at the very least, interesting. Don't give up on this blog just yet!

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