“Once I wanted to be the greatest,” croons Chan Marshall on the title track to this, her latest album under the Cat Power moniker, “No wind or waterfall could stall me.” While the song itself may refer to a fictional boxer, the lyrics seem to perfectly describe her music career. Since 1995, she has released seven albums on three different labels, earning much critical acclaim but remaining virtually unknown the American public. Financial difficulties and the cold hardships of the music industry have been mere waterfalls in her path to The Greatest, an album that is sure to bolster her reputation as one of indie rock’s best female artists.
Marshall’s celebrated voice combined with her unique inflection evokes at times Janis Joplin and at other times Beth Orton and her Lilith Fair brethren. Descriptions like these have remained constant throughout Cat Power’s 11-year run, but never have they been so accurate. Upon first listen, one might swear “The Moon” and the untitled bonus track were recorded in the `60s by Joplin herself.
The album as a whole is all over the place musically. The inclusion of some key Memphis session players (including Al Green’s guitarist and collaborative songwriter Mabon Hodges) on nearly every song give it an overall Southern feel, but Marshall has proven that huge sonic differences can arise even within the same basic genre.
The subtle vocals and dark tones of the opener (and title track) almost sound like they would have been at home on Fiona Apple’s new album. But just when the listener becomes accustomed to this style, the uncharacteristically upbeat “Living Proof” begins, throwing some gospel in to the mix, electric organ and all. The third track, “Lived in Bars” is equally disparate from its predecessor. For the first half, it plods along with a `70s nightclub feel before melting into a catchy sing-along with just the right amount of muted trumpet.
Marshall nearly reinvents herself on every other track on the album as well. From the starry-eyed ballad “Where Is My Love,” to the ragtime “After It All,” to the almost bluegrass-ish “Empty Shell,” she appears to have made it a point to never sing the same song twice.
Despite the musical differences between each song, the album as a whole loses some steam in the second half. After exciting songs like “Could We” and lovely ballads like “Willie,” the stripped-down feel of “Islands” and “Hate” seems boring in comparison. It’s almost as though Marshall purposely confined all of the high-energy tunes to the first half of the disc. That is, until the outstanding closer “Love and Communication.”
Quickly establishing itself as by far the best song on the album, it soon proves itself to be a heavyweight even in Cat Power’s extensive catalog. Its looming string arrangements perfectly accentuate a great vocal melody and some outstanding rhythm guitar work. Once it’s over, you’re left wanting more and wishing the second half of the album measured up to its greatness. If only Marshall could have channeled the energy of this track and sprinkled it throughout the second half of The Greatest, she might have had a true masterpiece on her hands. For now, we’ll just have live with 7 or 8 of her best songs to date.