Like Will Oldham, Cat Power's Chan Marshall is known as much for the minimalist, stark production of her recordings as for the enveloping quality of her songwriting. Of course, a minimalist approach necessarily limits the palette, and so, as Oldham did on last year's SingsGreatest Palace Music (Drag City), Marshall attempts a slicker studio sound on her new LP, The Greatest. There are differences, to be sure — while Oldham reworked previously recorded songs with Nashville studio pros, Marshall attempts new material with some of Memphis's finest, including the famed Hodges brothers, who are known for their work with Al Green. The Greatest is far more successful than the Oldham release: Looser and more sincere, it actually sounds like a new record rather than a weird trick.But it's not necessarily more interesting. In fleshing out the production, both artists paradoxically narrow their sound, smoothing over stark songwriting with oft-overdone arrangements.
There are admittedly some songs here as worthy asMarshall's older work. The open piano chords on the title track and "Hate" recall the encompassing emptiness of 1998's Moon Pix and the highlights of her last studio album, 2003's You Are Free (both Matador), and "The Moon" is quintessential Cat Power: the type of dewy, circular ballad Marshall has previously perfected with songs like "Good Woman" and "Metal Heart." Some of the more shuffling stuff is nice enough (the band's limber groove on "Living in Bars" sets a perfect pace for Marshall's musings on the smoky rooms of her life), yet there's almost always an unnecessary production element that undercuts the impact. Marshall certainly isn't the first to pursue a Southern sound with varying success, but with so unique a voice, she's also one of the few who seems worth the test of patience. (Max Goldberg)
CAT POWER AND THE MEMPHIS RHYTHM BAND
Feb. 23 – <\d>24
Palace of Fine Arts, SF
Coming on Strong
It took a minute for a label on this side of the Atlantic to get wise to UK duo Hot Chip's slyly twisted take on bedroom funk: Moshi Moshi originally released this record back in 2004, but only now has Astralwerks given the States a shot at the fun house mirror of Coming on Strong. Maybe we weren't yet ready to hear Joe Goddard drawl lines like "Driving in my Peugeot, yeah yeah yeah / 20-inch rims with the chrome now, yeah yeah yeah / Blazin' out Yo La Tengo, yeah yeah yeah" over a tortured buzz saw synth line.
Whatever the cause for delay, it would be a shame to dismiss Goddard and his partner with the plaintive tenor, Alexis Taylor, as clever boys merely having fun with R&B on their laptops. Sure, their lyrics are good for a giggle, but Coming on Strong is not only full of top-notch pop songs with a devious sense of humor; it is a surprisingly solid album with a spare sound that grows fuller with repeated listens. Teaming a muted 2-step beat with lazy guitars and a sweetly percussive thumb piano on "Baby Said," or the randomly percolating keys and a hollow, pinched bass on "Down with Prince," Hot Chip use production that never gets in the way of the song. Occasionally, however, their cleverness gets the best of the track — like on the thin singsong start of "Falling," with its various lyrical takes on "It's like only Stevie Wonder sees the same things" — but even then Hot Chip recover their precarious balance with a quirky AOR-worthy breakdown following claims of making tracks "that move you like you stepped in something nasty." Coming on Strong is a blast, keeping you nodding your head irresistibly one moment and shaking it in wonder at Hot Chip's gall the very next. (Peter Nicholson)
City Fallen Leaves
(Kill Rock Stars)
Like the Pastels with energy or some less tuneful form of the Vaselines, the British outfit Comet Gain, led by frontperson David Christian (who apparently at some point changed his name from David Feck), have amassed a considerable discography of raw, catchy, garage-mod revival sounds. While the quintet's latest, City Falling Leaves, is one of its least visceral excursions yet, Christian and company often still manage to whip up a considerable amount of guitar and backbeat scree to cover the singer-poet's abundant lyricism. But considering Christian's decision to frontload most of his songs with sometimes excessively thoughtful lyrics, City occasionally borders dangerously on spoken-word territory.
So it's no surprise that covocalist Rachel Evans claims some of the strongest material here: namely, the driving, fatalist anthem "Just One More Summer Before I Go." Otherwise, City largely alternates between upbeat, lo-fi jams and sensitive balladry, the biggest missteps coming when Christian attempts to almost abandon music in lieu of prose ("The Story of the Vivian Girls"). The faux-organic rap that initiates "The Punk Got Fucked" suggests the same fate until each instrument quietly joins in for what becomes a relatively raucous ending. Add frequent references to mix tapes and melancholy, and the themes of City seem as if they could only develop under the often gray skies of the at times unapologetically earnest British music scene. Instrumentally, City shows a great deal of maturation from 2002's rawer Realistes, but Comet Gain has always been best with the volume at a maximum and studio time at a minimum. (Grant Brissey)