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CAT POWER Wanderer gets 8/10

Cat Power


On Cat Power’s 10th album, Chan Marshall returns to the stripped down sounds of The Covers Record-era to deliver one of her strongest albums. Unlike the more full band sounds of most of her 2000s output, or previous album – the electronically-enhanced Sun from 2012 – Wanderer returns to the desolate roads and gothic landscapes of The Covers Record (2000), with usually just piano and solo guitar as accompaniment to her singing.

And for Wanderer, this minimal approach is its strength, as after all – Cat Power’s greatest asset has always been Marshall’s voice. Since the south-eastern US native was discovered in NYC in the late 1990s, she has established herself as one of her generation’s best singers – indeed, the Billie Holiday of her generation. A voice that is only able to carry all that emotion through direct experience of those feelings herself, and an honesty to make the words meaningfully connect with listeners with singing that voices heartache and longing, hope and pain. Wanderer also benefits from a stripped-down production ethos. Most songs have just a single strong vocal track, similar to what concertgoers hear live, rather than the usual double tracking on studio albums, although it appears a few times here.

The theme of Wanderer is Marshall channeling the travelling folk troubadour of old, to arrive at a place and tell tales experienced along the way. Marshall’s lyrics continue to take an oblique approach to storytelling, and are best appreciated as being evocative of the themes rather than literal in most songs.

The short opening and closing tracks Wanderer and Wanderer/Exit are based on a gospel-styled tune, with a just a backing choir to provide an optimistic mood to either end of the album. In Your Face is just guitar, piano and tabla with Marshall singing a tale of karmic retribution, with the evidence of living a shallow life evident “in your mirror, in your face”. The skeletal approach to instrumentation suits this and other songs well, leaving plenty of space for the words to resonate and the melodic lines to flourish and interact. Nothing Really Matters strips back the instrumentation even further, to just piano and voice. Here Marshall’s singing edges towards some of the darker material on The Covers Record, but there’s more of an element of hope in the performance.

You Get is a more upbeat number with a full band sound, almost sounding like a single. The extra voices on the chorus work well, with the lyrics focusing on the lessons that time and heeding experience can provide. Black is also guitar-driven, and concerns some dark subject matter (“Angel of Death, let me tell you about black”), but is delivered with a slightly upbeat tempo plucked on an acoustic guitar and a double-voiced, soulful main vocal line that makes for a compelling account of Marshall facing her demons.

Woman features Lana Del Rey on vocals and some guitar, and stands out as the “hit”, with an uplifting theme and more elaborate production with a full band compared to the other songs. Tellingly, she sings “Doctor said I was better than ever; man, you shoulda seen me; doctor said I was locked in my past, he said I was finally free”. Encouraging words to hear given Marshall’s oft-tumultuous life. The resounding, repeating chorus of “I’m a woman” comes from a place of strength to take the song out.

Although ‘just’ a cover, Stay is one of the highlights on the album. A song originally performed by Rihanna, it is covered here with just piano, voice and a touch of strings. This performance of Stay is perfectly Cat Power; powerful and touching through the sheer force of experience in the voice, with the instrumentation stripped back to enable Marshall’s voice to shine through.

Me Voy (“I’m going”) sticks with the Wanderer theme about travelling as a folk musician, with a traditional guitar and piano arrangement and straightforward lyrics about deciding to go or stay. The brief Robbin Hood is a resigned story of the world’s current malaise of greed in our capitalist system, similar to other more overt political themes on the album, carried out with just guitar and tambourine. Horizon continues with a slow repetitive main theme, from which the vocal lines unwind their account of family connections a topic not often raised by Marshall but which she presents admirably here. The background singing has flares of auto-tuning to give it a Sun-leaning progressive tilt to the recording.

Wanderer is a welcome return to the bare bones instrumentation of earlier Cat Power records, especially as her voice is squarely in the foreground here. In contrast to the more pained singing on earlier releases, Wanderer draws from a more mature perspective, and benefits from the troubadour theme that runs through the album. The minimal approach is so effective, one hopes she could just remain in this mode of music making for a few albums more. But whatever the future, Marshall is fully present on Wanderer, her best album in years and a highlight of her recorded output to date.


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