It is quite a risk to call your album The Greatest – even if the name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali – but Cat Power pulled it off in 2006. Cat Power is the stage name of Atlanta’s Chan Marshall, daughter of blues musician Charlie Marshall. A move to New York aged 20 introduced her to the Big Apple experimental music scene and there she recorded her first two albums, the second of which Myra Lee (1996) got a 5/5 review from Rolling Stone. Her third album What Would the Community Think (1996) was produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and featured styles ranging from alternative rock to folk and blues.
She moved to Oregon and spent time in Melbourne where she recorded Moon Pix (1998) and then after releasing a covers album followed it with You Are Free (2003) which received widespread critical acclaim. The Greatest came out three years later, recorded in Memphis. As Pitchfork said, The Greatest resembled all her previous records as “a mostly sad, heartbroken, hopeless, rainy-day affair.” Pitchfork noted veteran Memphis studio musicians served as her backing band, including Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. “These soul legends have played with Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and more; in other words, they don’t seem like the kind of dudes who’d stand much tortured diva bullshit from some no-name white girl off Matador Records,” Pitchfork said.
The quality is evident from the bleak but beautiful opening title track. “Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stall me.” Following on is the breezy Living Proof. The Guardian review said about this song her band get to stretch out and kick back in their signature fashion, “but there is something about Power’s vocal drift, and her almost abstract lyrics, that makes the conjunction strangely inconclusive.” My conclusion: my favourite song on the album.
Could We takes off in another intriguing musical direction while the brief but beautiful Islands is pure Nashville in Memphis. The final two songs end the album on a perfect note. Hate is hard and you can feel Power’s power “They can give me pills / Or let me drink my fill / The heart wants to explode / Far away where nobody knows.”
Hate can be great but love is better and Love and Communication is a great way to finish a great album. “Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts / Don’t hate the night with what you shouldn’t have.” As Pitchfork said, Power turned the tables on the final track. “Instead of the Memphis crew welcoming Marshall into their world, the closing track sees Marshall luring the studio vets down her dark, claustrophobic alley. ”
There may not be much room to move and it may be hard to see but The Greatest is a rich and rewarding journey still paying off a decade later.