photo from last night by Ryan Dombal
Wednesday, February 6
Here’s an interesting question that rock and roll implicitly asks all the time but never gets answered: What happens when the things that make artists resonate are inextricably bound to the things that make them miserable human beings? And what kind of guilt do we bear given that—consciously or otherwise—we’re taking a kind of vouyeristic pleasure in watching those struggles happen (a la Amy Winehouse)? In other words: How does one be an artist and a person? On this point, I can’t help but sympathize with Cat Power’s position.
For years, Chan Marshall has been spinning a career out of the tension between her autobiographical identity and her constructed persona. At its best, her music is a site where all the opposing forces those dual-indentities imply—confession vs. concealment, self-loathing vs. tyrannical self-assertion, individual freedom vs. human connection—are always at play. Cat Power knows her rock and roll, and there’s nothing terribly new about all this. In fact, it’s probably one of music’s oldest traditions. What’s rare, really, is how clearly those tensions have made her the performer that she is. Even as she sings in that languid, melancholy whisper, her body tends to fidget around nervously—kicking, galloping, wringing her hands, physically acting out her lyrics. In one moment she could take an audience by the neck, and in the next she’d seem like she wanted to go crawl into a hole.. And for all the tantrums and meltdowns, you knew, instinctually, that for one facet of that personality to win out over the other would be for musical identity to collapse; that ultimately her art was the product of those opposing electrical charges. With The Greatest, she found a crack squad of Motown Veterans who could exploit that tension musically while carefully couching the idiosyncrasies of her voice. It was a good match. She could soften their assured strut with a bit of pathos; and, in turn, they could imbue her vulnerability with the type of rough swagger that was probably always lurking beneath it. And somewhere during the process, she got healthy.
Rock journalism tends to traffic in the most obvious dialectics possible, so while the bulk of critical attention used to be directed in one way or another towards Marshall’s problems, the go-to-theme now, of course, is her new life. In that way in which an artist ceases to become the imaginary property of a “knowing” community and suddenly belongs to the world, The Greatest moved Cat Power from indie darling to indie diva: She lives in Miami, models for Chanel, records incredible Cat Stevens covers for diamond commercials, just released another covers album, and has at the very least reached a point in her musical career when she can comfortably minimize the things—like interviews—that have traditionally upset her. She also seems to have become increasingly aware of the fact that she’s a sexual figure; more comfortable with the glamorized image of herself. Most importantly, she’s sober. The question is: How does this figure into her art?
Whatever type of symbolic meaning critics try to mine out of Jukebox (i.e. “I Believe in You” is Chan singing to herself, which is a perfect example of the afore-mentioned trend) the truth it doesn’t tell us much either way in that respect. So watching her perform should have been an interesting experience.
The problem, however, is that Terminal 5 is the worst major venue in New York City. It’s like a dance club in the Death Star, which would be almost tolerable if it didn’t sound like one too. More or less, it’s a money-making apparatus, and I can assure you that Terminal 5’s conception was less about the quality of the experience it shapes and more about its sheer capacity to bring in currency. In other words: It’s a disastrous place to see Cat Power perform. And if you were to frame Chan Marshall within that rock allegory of the reformed artist-gone-assimilated and bland, Terminal 5 would be a good place to do it. Of course things aren’t always as simple as that.
Completely wrapped in a haze of monotonous bass-buzz, ear-splitting feedback, harshly amplified guitars, psychotic drum fills, and generally over-determined play, Marshall’s voice was almost non-existent through most of the show. She may as well have been singing without a microphone. Strangely, though, from the moment she took the stage—waving excitedly at the audience and launching into an incredibly murky “New York New York”—I’ve hardly ever seen her happier in a performance. And though there was something endearing about watching Chan Marshall trying to seduce an audience from within all that noise, her evenness mostly just made the whole spectacle depressing: something like watching an eagle happily tied to a stump. The sound-tech was apparently too stupid to fix the problem, and, worse, the band seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that they were on stage to frame Marshall’s voice instead of crowd it. (It’s hard to imagine why this conversation wasn’t taking place: “Hey, they can’t hear Chan that well.” “Oh. That’s a fairly significant problem. Let’s get our instruments turned down.”)
Still, somewhere in that cloud of sound there was probably some good music happening. “Metal Heart,” “Sing One for Me Aretha” and “Naked if I Want To” almost managed to save themselves. But ultimately, the absence of the Memphis Rhythm Section is hurting her, and nowhere was that more apparent than in the songs off The Greatest. Where tunes like “Where is My Love,” “Could We” and “The Moon” used to be all blue smoke around Marshall’s voice, here those vocals were darting and sipping within heavy-handed arrangements. If anything, the missteps proved how much her music is about subtlety.
Predictably, Bob Dylan also figured in the proceedings. “Ode to Bobby”—an average cut on the record—turned out to be one of the better songs of the night (partially because her band actually left her alone) and “I Believe in You” really is a lovely cover. But like most major influences, Dylan is also a problem for Marshall: For instance, though she’s taken up Zim’s proclivity for warping and skewing his own songs— playing with melodies, phrasing, arrangement and tempo—the fact is that without her undivided vocal attention, her songs fall apart. Likewise, though her band was doing its best impression of a wild mercury-type session ensemble—everything ringing and metallic, even some faux Highway 61 organ—they ultimately missed the point that everything those bands did was in the service of Dylan’s songs. Instead, they just decided to rock. For most of the night, it sounded as if she was singing a hundred yards behind them.
Though she vented some frustration towards the end of the night—working words like “feedback,” “high-end,” and “sibilance” into her songs (“this feedback is pissing me off” went one actually pretty well-sung lyric), mostly Marshall remained far more composed than her audience did. Which, ironically, was the problem. What we really could have used was a well-placed tantrum. After all, this was exactly the type of situation that would have Chan Marshall into a complete psychological tailspin just a few years ago. In fairness, it would have made most artists lose their temper. But she didn’t. And while I admire that, I wish she would have. That’s Cat Power. And that’s completely unfair of me. But so it goes
The sound system may have been malfunctioning, but the spotlights were doing just fine; and with the sonics irretrievably compromised, the night quickly became about Marshall’s charisma.
Halfway through the gig she lost her traditional military-style shirt (to a chorus of screams) for a blue sweatshirt with the neck cut wide, so it kept slipping flirtatiously over her shoulders. It suited her.
And yeah, it’s true. Chan Marshall is a very, very beautiful woman; and also incredibly sexy in that all the classically elegant things about her—the cleanly etched lines of her shoulders, her eyes, the elegant length of her neck—are jumbled with small imperfections that pleasantly off-set them (i.e. the way that her mouth curls compulsively to the side when she sings). Moreover, all of this is made nine times as unbearable because she has real, undeniable talent. You can see how someone like this could be easily shaped into a marketing device, and that’s an eerie thought. The frightening thing about the show at Terminal 5 wasn’t that—as the sound problems grew worse—you could feel the show conform to the shape of that persona; that the music almost became an afterthought. It was that for most of the night Chan Marshall wasn’t fighting that at all. What a horrifying sight—even for a moment—to see Cat Power the sex object overshadow Chan Marshall the artist.
At one point, Marshall began singing with her palm held directly in front of her face like a mirror. One can’t help but wonder who she saw.