To release an album in January or early February is, sometimes, to make a statement. There are two blocks of the year when most records come out: March to June, and September to November. July and August are European and American summer holidays, so little is released then. December is a favourite dumping ground, home to many a bad record hoping to be lost in the rush. January and February is the one time when there is a hint of tranquillity; the time when a light can be shone on something special. Early in the year people have an ear out for something new – or someone unique – that may need time to sink in. A record can live a little longer – on media puff, a full year to tour, and that most important thing, attention span.
Chan Marshall (Cat Power is the moniker for this one-woman band) and Beth Orton have a few things in common. Both are in their mid-thirties, and emerged in the mid-’90s with records that made an instant impact: Marshall with her fourth album, Moonpix, and Orton with her debut, Trailer Park. Since then they have consolidated, but not gone supernova. Both have wandered; both have done good work and bad. Neither is prolific. Now, about ten years into their careers – always seen as a vital point in the arc of a recording artist’s life – they have albums out close to each other, in the early part of the year.
Chan Marshall is a most singular person. Her reputation in the music world, beyond recognition of her unquestionably rich talent, is for erratic and eccentric behaviour. Until now this has made her live performances and interviews fascinating as spectacle – for what she will or will not do, in the face of any definition of the normal. She’s a black sheep, deep black. The question after a live show is not, “How good?” but “How was she?” Often brilliant, with a voice straight out of a Capote short story, she is wilful and capable of trampling across her own muse.
For The Greatest, she has gone to Memphis and engaged the services of ’70s soul star Al Green’s former band members. Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges is on guitar, and his brother Leroy is on bass. Teenie co-wrote the classic ‘Take me To The River’. On drums is Steve Potts; he plays with Booker T and the MGs. These are soul heavyweights. Around them are strings, keyboards, sax, and Marshall on vocals, piano, guitar. The intention is a soul album sonically identified with the Hi label, home of a famous Memphis recording studio and scene that centred on the work of Al Green, and is perhaps best remembered for Anne Peebles’ ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’. Hi was funky, with powerful songs and a raw, dirt-bucket soul sound. That’s the angle.
The first four songs carry the brief. The opener, ‘The Greatest’, is Chan’s noble hymn to herself:
Once I wanted to be the greatest
No wind or waterfall could stall me
And then came the rush of the blood
Stars of night turned deep to rust
Followed by this breathtaking couplet:
Melt me down / Into big black armour.
It’s a manifesto on a par with Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘Hope There’s Someone’, serving the same purpose: a giving of the heart that is sung over a gorgeous piano lead. ‘Living Proof’ and ‘Could We’ (with brass) swing, and are a magical fusion of Marshall and the soul sound. With ‘Lived In Bars’, the sister to ‘The Greatest’, it’s a quartet of songs so good you’ll think you’re looking squarely at the new Dusty In Memphis. And then it trembles. The countryish ‘Empty Shell’ is the first crack. It brings in a melancholia that will run deep through the album, like a second stream, dissolving the fine work of the soul songs. It’s telling that ‘Empty Shell’, ‘The Moon’ and ‘Hate’ (I hate myself and I want to die) are all guitar-driven songs. Marshall’s guitar skills are not on par with her piano-playing; the melodies are less inventive and, stylistically, at a complete remove from the soul songs.
There are two albums here. With ‘Willie’ and ‘Love & Communication’, the soul part makes up six songs. The deeply melancholic guitar side, which has another country number and a breathy sparse ballad, runs to six songs, too. They don’t meet. Lyrically they talk to each other, but musically the gulf is too wide. This is a soul album on the one hand, and almost a Kurt Cobain solo album on the other. Both parts are powerful, but it’s the wrong mix. You want the soul album to sustain: the best songs are there and she’s got the band. Perhaps we have to go back to the words of ‘The Greatest’: Aiming for something with great ambition, but then … the rush of the blood … turned deep to rust.
Focus is not a problem for Beth Orton. She has gone to New York and hired Jim O’Rourke as her producer. O’Rourke is hip; so hip Sonic Youth asked him to join. He made a number of good, influential solo albums in the late ’90s, filled with hypnotic guitar-figure songs. Since then he has carved out a role as producer, often working with bands with a more mainstream lilt than himself, such as Wilco. It’s a bold choice for Orton, considering the strength of the 14 songs she has written. Big names would have loved this job, but O’Rourke is an inspired choice.
Comfort of Strangers is out to impress. The songs are strong and the recording process sounds spontaneous, as though the tracks were done in one or two takes. This is no criticism: the playing is so good, so tight, and it’s beautifully recorded. Analogue, but dry. It’s a record where you can crank the volume up to hear the lyrics, yet it doesn’t get harsh.
Orton is engaged right from the outset. Worms don’t dance / They haven’t got the balls is the album’s audacious opening line. The first three songs each clock in under three minutes, and all are sure-fire. It’s as if she doesn’t have to linger over anything, because the next song is going to be just as good. The album is folky, but far too sophisticated to be content with any of the genre’s pat formulas. It’s easy to fake a reasonable folk album, and Beth Orton could do it as well as anyone. But she challenges herself with the confidence of the freshly liberated. ‘Countenance’ is pop; ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ is West Coast rock; ‘A Place Aside’ and ‘Safe In Your Arms’ are moving ballads, centrally placed; ‘Shopping Trolley’ is indie rock.
The words tumble out of her: funny/sad ruminations on love, meetings and family. None of it too hippie, but with a hippie code, the late ’60s – early ’70s code of ‘love ’em and leave ’em and the journey goes on’. She’s smart and tough with it, though. Perhaps it’s the London girl in her – a pocket full of songs, doing the American album and succeeding.
And yes, there’s something of the Swordfishtrombones, Achtung Baby and Blood on the Tracks about all of this: the artist unexpectedly shedding an old skin, and achieving the breakthrough. As so often, the key is simplicity: the long-sought-after alignment of an artist’s root worth with the means of expressing it. The lyrics often signal the change. Artists suddenly vomit up tonnes of them, more often than not to brilliant tunes, which feeds back into the singing, super-confident in its newfound strength. Genius often sounds relaxed, as it does here.
This is the album you’re going to hear in cafés all year. The prairie voice with the tales to tell. And Chan Marshall? Her time will come. She just needs to work out who she wants to be.
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