Four and a half years is an awfully long gestation period for what appears to be a transitional album, but Chan Marshall's new LP as Cat Power nonetheless documents a turning point. Whether she winds up favoring her new incarnation as an up-tempo indie-rock heroine or that of an outsider folkie -- or some permutation of the two -- remains to be seen.
Marshall's talent for eviscerating classic and obscure tunes alike still exists with You Are Free, with covers of Greenwich Village songwriter Michael Hurley's "Werewolf" and John Lee Hooker's "Crawlin' Black Spider," retitled here as "Keep On Runnin'." And while these covers are as intimate and spooky as her reworking of Moby Grape (or her own "In This Hole," for that matter), this new Cat Power record contains several of the most beautiful original songs Marshall has ever written. Unfortunately, it also dumps us a handful of ham-handed, less-than-artful indulgences that seem strategically placed to minimize the effects of the more brilliant pieces.
The first thing that grabs the listener is Marshall's newfound confidence with actual rhythm and beats. "Free," "He War" (Cat Power aping Peaches? Hell, yes!), and "Speak for Me" are abuzz with interlocking guitar lines and call-and-response vocals, invigorating the album by preventing solemn piano figures and hushed signing.
Solemnity has always been Marshall's strong suit, and some of You Are Free's best moments do come in ballad form, but unfortunately, so do its worst. To wit: the lyrically clumsy opener "I Don't Blame You" gets things off to an unsteady start, and later the plodding catalog of "Names" all but kills the mood completely.
It's hard to take in an inconsistent album, warts and all, when its major flaws could've been erased with a little tough love. In the end, though, it's a waste of time to fault Marshall, especially since the absolute greatness of the majority of You Are Free overwhelms the lesser tracks. After all, this album's defining theme seems to be one of liberty, none of which could be extant without falling flat on your face a few times.
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