Three reviews

Cat Power
The Greatest
Matador Records

Chan Marshall, the driving force that is Cat Power, has returned with her seventh album, The Greatest, her first since the well-received You Are Free in 2003. 

Over the course of the past decade, Marshall has teamed up with such heavy hitters as Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder. For The Greatest, which was recorded in Memphis, she recruited legendary soul brothers Mabon “Teenie” Hodges (guitar) and Leroy “Flick” Hodges (bass), the pair on Al Green’s classic ’70s albums, and a host of other studio sidemen from Memphis’ soul heyday. 

The Greatest opens with its soothing title track (a song about a boy trying to become a boxer), and instantly draws you in with its subtle piano and Marshall’s sad and beautiful vocal style. “Living Proof” and “Lived In Bars” are three-minutes-and-change of soulful perfection. The alt-country flavor of “Empty Shell” took me back to the vocal stylings of Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano. Other highlights include “Willie,” “After It All,” and the heart-pounding, string-infused “Where Is My Love.”

The Greatest will surely hold up as one of the best records of 2006, further proof that Marshall is one of the most gifted female vocalists of our time.


The High Violets
To Where You Are
Reverb Records


Listening to the second CD by this quartet from the “other” Portland (Oregon, that is), I was reminded of Lush, The Sundays, Cranes, Slowdive, The Darling Buds, and maybe even Cocteau Twins. The High Violets’ first release since 2002’s highly praised 44 Down is reminiscent of all those bands, and maybe a few more. A friend of mine calls vocalist/keyboardist/guitarist Kaitlyn Ni Donovan “the female Morrissey.”

Writing on, critic Mackenzie Wilson hit the nail on the head by calling The High Violets’ music “swirling dream pop.” You’ll hear that on cuts like the opener “Sun Baby,” “Chinese Letter,” “Want You,” and the instrumental “Nocturnal.” Then there’s the ’80s-flavored, Blondie-meets-The Jesus & Mary Chain track “Cool Green.” The title track — which closes this oh-so-short, nine-song, 34-minute release — reminded me of a favorite band I haven’t heard in a while, the Norwegian group Bel Canto and its ethereal vocalist, Anneli Drecker. 

This is a solid sophomore effort by a band that may invoke many others, but ultimately brings you back to The High Violets, back To Where You Are


Stuck in 2005: Last year’s ’80 highlights 

“Breathe Me,” by Australian recording artist Sia (full name Sia Furler), was the song featured in the final minutes of the highly praised HBO series Six Feet Under. This tune had me watching that scene over and over again. Every time I saw the very limited edition radio promo single, which includes six mixes of the song, on eBay, it was going for at least $40. Six Feet Undercreator/writer/director Alan Ball was a genius to include it in the last scene of the show. Brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that Sia’s 2004 album, Colour The Small One(previously available only as an import), has just been released here in the U.S. with four bonus tracks, including two additional remixes of “Breathe Me.” I can’t remember the last time one song from a six-minute scene in a television show proved to be so powerful, influential and downright memorable. 

This was another easy decision: “Theme From Chariots of Fire,” by the jazz trio The Bad Plus. It’s found on their third album, Suspicious Activity? Bassist Reid Anderson, drummer David King and pianist Ethan Iverson start their version faithfully enough, but proceed into an all-over-the-map rendition of the #1 Vangelis hit that will make you curse and love it at the same time. The song then fades out as beautifully as the original version did. 

This category didn’t even appear on my list until December 2005, with the release of American Laundromat Records’ ’80s covers album, High School Reunion: A Tribute to Those Great 80s Films. This was an album nearly a year in the making, and it features great covers from Frank Black (“Repo Man”), Kristin Hersh (“Wave of Mutilation”), The Dresden Dolls (“Pretty In Pink”), and a Tom Petty cover so good, you’ll think at first that Tom was singing it himself (“American Girl,” by Matthew Sweet — truly one of the best covers I have ever heard). 

I’ve believed for some time now that the British are a bit better than Americans when it comes to recognizing good music. How else can you explain why David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” went to #1 in the U.K. and didn’t even hit the American charts? 

The British (and some Americans, too) are paid tribute in the 2002 book by U.K. author Garry Mulholland, This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco. The book starts off in 1976, and works its way up every year until 2001. Uncool is utterly prejudiced. It takes 500 songs that charted on the U.K. singles chart and includes songs that normally wouldn’t make it on any decent list, such as Kylie Minogue’s “I Should Be So Lucky” (1988) and the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” (1996). But it also includes great songs like the aforementioned “Ashes to Ashes” (1980), Blondie’s “Atomic” (1979), The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Never Understand” (1985), and a great write-up on that #68 U.K. classic from 1985, “Can Your Pussy Do the Dog?,” by The Cramps: “The last classic Cramps single was from an album, A Date with Elvis, that was nothing more than a bunch of obsessive scuzz-rock tributes to the power of the pussy,” writes Mulholland. “Who needs The Vagina Monologues when you’ve got under three minutes of pummeling, twanging fuckabilly that consists of Lux Interior pleading and drooling while his girlfriend’s guitar sits right on his face?” 

That great Brit wit is all throughout this excellent read. Don’t be fooled by the title – this is cool. 

With new albums last year from ’80s survivors Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode, Aimee Mann, New Order, Sinéad O’Connor, Frank Black, Gang Of Four, Madness, Morrissey, Erasure and Billy Idol, it was confirmed that even 15 years after the death of the decade, the ’80s music revolution is still going strong. It felt great. 


— Ron Raymond Jr.

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