This week I have something very different to offer. Cat Power’s The Greatest is an album of slow-paced, sometimes melancholy singer-songwriter soul music from one of my favourite female vocalists. Cat Power is the stage name for Chan Marshall. She works sometimes alone and sometimes in combination with others but is the only constant under that moniker. In this case her collaborators are Memphis studio musicians who are helpful in lending the record a smoky, boozy character that fits with her voice and many of her characters. I have always bristled at describing anybody whose music I enjoy as a singer-songwriter because it conjures generic sounds in my memory. This is in many ways a soul record. It has the sort of singer-songwriter storytelling structure to many of the songs but it is the soulfulness of her voice that best characterizes the record. “The moon is not only beautiful . . . The moon is not only ice cold,” is the sort of juxtaposition and sentiment that she is able to sell with a voice that is neither strong nor clear in the way of most great female singers but alive and unique in the manner though not the sound of Janis Joplin or June Carter.
The record has subtle touches that provide added joy to songs that are traditionally structured. The quiet whistle on “After It All” implies and compels involvement. Horns unexpectedly punctuate the state of the union examining “Could We” and provide a kick of testimonial soul. The title track features a twangy guitar sound that converses with her plaintive vocals to tell the story of a dreamer who wants something very different from what one would guess the singer’s dreams to be. “Living Proof” and “Love and Communication” offer more tempo more sounds, including judicious and perfectly utilized organ work, but do so without infringing on Chan’s voice or the stories she’s sharing. “Lived in Bars” tells a fairly common story but again horn flourishes and Marshall’s voice give it a life and truth that defies the black and white tellings that are most common. While some of the records less impressive tracks (“Willie”, “The Moon”, “Hate”) may be too understated to stand alone, when set among this collection they provide excellent counterpoints and reprieves. The album is constructed so that each song interacts with both its predecessor and its follower. On the whole, the record is emotionally fulfilling and soulfully enjoyable. I find that its greatest quality is that I can listen to it no matter my mood and no matter the situation and it still sounds good.