Review Summary: You Are Free is arguably, Cat Power's best record.
It was late 2002 when a friend handed me this mixtape that had, apart from some Live and Better Than Ezra, this version of Oasis' Wonderwall by some woman. Now don't go "blasphemous!" on me, I didn't know better at the time. This acoustic recording, though of bootleg quality, made the Oasis hit seem thoroughly uplifting in a "smoking kills you, but so does gun running in Ethiopia" sort of way. It was like a Wonderwall reprise, only, on tonnes of Valium. Beautiful.
Under the moniker Cat Power, Chan Marshall has successfully managed to do something very few artists can claim to have done - stayed true
. It sounds terribly cliche but Dear Sir could well have been her latest record. There has been the obvious progression as an artist - the slightly 'bigger' sound, the collaborations and all the frills that come with being one of the most popular indie rock ladies. But inherently, she's still the same woman who sang "Keep your guns home, help keep your momma safe"
. It's the reflection of someone who hasn't really given a *** about trends, distortion and Fall Out Boy.
Released at the beginning of 2003, You Are Free made a louder statement about the state of music than anything could that year. It was simple, it didn't try too hard, it didn't have an album title with allthewordssmooshedtogether. With Dave Grohl on drums and Eddie Vedder backing on two songs, it was going to be good for most people regardless of what the songs were like. And as expected, it delivered there too.
Right from the lazy piano on I Don't Blame You to it suddenly growling on He War, she says everything Ani DiFranco would want to say and flings it at you with an almost Liz Phair-ish air of well, bluntness.
I Don't Blame You is a song for Kurt Cobain. She looks at him in disdain but finally understands with the title of the song. It's an enchanting start to an album that really is just that. Like at the end of the album when she sings "We can all be free"
when the song is called Maybe Not. It's the mark of an artist at the peak of her skill when all she has to do is play four notes on a piano and sing a song that is unfailingly truthful and terribly real
The album is intentionally as heartless as it is pensive. Lyrically, she doesn't leave anything hanging; every song sort of has a completion, so it's not ambiguous as most things that pass off as indie these days. The instrumentation perfectly complements this clarity. Like the violin and string section on the beautiful, Werewolf; the sort of avant-garde unbashedness, with which there's just so much violin and just so much guitar that it leaves you craving more, would be entirely cruel if she didn't start with Fool immediately after.
She can just as easily "punk up" her sound as she can mellow it down. Speak For Me and He War are shining examples of just how much range this lady has, and how reluctant anyone can be to press 'Next'.
The Greatest released in autumn 2006 was Marshall's predictably brilliant follow up to You Are Free. It was almost everything Cat Power, as its predecessor, but it saw the indie darling tiring. You Are Free saw her at her best.