There is a story told of Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and Cat Power's Chan Marshall encountering one another in the ladies' room of a Los Angeles bar. Recognizing each other in the large mirror above the sinks, they turn and face. Lewis speaks first: "If I believed in God, I would pray for her not to involve herself in human affairs." Marshall responds, singing softly: "We were born before the wind, also younger than the sun, ere the bonnie boat was won, as we sailed into the mystic." After a long moment, Marshall turns back to the mirror, and Lewis reaches for a paper towel. The two never speak again.
Like sisters, Lewis, newly solo, and Marshall, ever individual, are as different as they are alike. Jenny Lewis, 29, has acted in television and movies since 1986, and fronts the recently great Los Angeles foursome Rilo Kiley with a mix of bookish irony, earnest questioning, and audition-cinching verve. NYC transplant Chan Marshall, 33, works as a fashion model when she's not recording pristinely emotive blues-like disturbances, floundering through her famous anti-performances, or ambiguously claiming her total lack of calculation. Both share a charisma that seems at once affected and innate. But Lewis draws the spotlight to herself, while Marshall holds it in a sort of orbit, inhabiting the shadows.
The big news about Cat Power's seventh album, The Greatest, is the Memphis Rhythm Band. Marshall brought in Al Green guitarist Mabon "Teenie" Hodges, his bassist brother Leroy, Booker T.'s drummer, and a handful of Memphis pros on horns, strings, and the rest in either a fit of daring or a casual change-up. Was she risking her delicate balance, or hiring a backbone? It's said that Marshall inspires faith when in fact she requires it. But for those who love her shivery, wide-eyed insinuation, it hardly matters. Most players are overqualified to accompany Cat Power. Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder appeared on her last album, credited only by their initials and their profoundly understated, essentially invisible performances. Trumpet is tougher to hide.
The Greatest simply turns out to be Cat Power's nicest. Mistress and band dilute one another, so that by the time you reach the midpoint of the album's longest track and intended climax, the six-minute "Trapped in the Closet"style relationship-web narrative "Willie," the slack grooves, muttery vocals, and string-and-horn dressing aren't just pillowy, they're telling you it's nap time. The best, most sinister tracksstiff, slow-strummed "Hate," darkly pulsing "Love & Communication," tentative weepie "Where Is My Love?"restore Marshall's hollow, sensual scratch of a voice to the music's center, where even she must know it belongs.
Chan Marshall's voice is her mystery, same as it ever was. Jenny Lewis, meanwhile, either sold her soul at an L.A. intersection or hired a vocal coach sometime after Rilo Kiley's coffeehouse-style debut album. More Adventurous, the group's dizzyingly great 2004 breakthrough, found Lewis with a new set of wings, and her band with a new set of balls. On Rabbit Fur Coat, joined by backup singers the Watson Twins and various others, she barely breaks stride. Bookended by a cappella affirmations of her newfound voicea spieling come-hither serenade, husky and silken by turnsthe disc pairs breezy country pop with Lewis's restless, somehow not totally annoying intertwining of contemporary concerns, encompassing alienation: from a runaway government, an absent though invoked God, distracted lovers, ambi-tious politicians/actors, overweening self- consciousness, rebellion itself. She goes there. It somehow makes perfect sense when she moves from anti-apathy anthem "The Big Guns," with its foot-stomp rhythm and racing acoustic guitar, directly into the slinky, apathetic ballad "Rise Up With Fists!!" The smart cover of the Traveling Wilburys' world-weary yet vigorous "Handle With Care," featuring the typically underwhelming Ben Gibbard (he's "tired") and enthralling Conor Oberst (he "made a mess"), even suggests Lewis looks to draw others into her sharp mind. She knows like few others how sexy an intelligent woman's navel can be.
Jenny Lewis plays Angel Orensanz Foundation February 5; Cat Power plays Town Hall February 14.
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