Weirdness has always been an essential ingredient of popular music --
from Charlie Feathers to Syd Barrett, Jonathan Richman, Björk and, well,
you probably have your own list. The fact is that weirdness is normal in
pop; how else to explain Bob Dylan's monumental popularity, for instance?
The trouble is, it's easier for us to like our artists weird than
it is for them to go on being weird -- if weird is a gift, it's one
that keeps on giving, and it eventually becomes a trap, because
true weirdness can't be shut off with an entertainment-center remote.
Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, is weird. Hers is a dream voice that
only makes sense in the dark, but not later, in the stark daylight;
it's still a kind of sense, of course. And she must be, to paraphrase
Jackson Browne, somebody's weird daughter, or weird sister. She's
simultaneously creaky-voice sensitive and strong -- she sings like
a less tuneful Beth Orton, or like a cruder Sinead O'Connor, and her
songs wander and solemnly squall. Even her guitar playing is weird,
obsessively fixating on musical figures that sound simple but are
endlessly complex -- she is to guitar what Moe Tucker is to drums.
Moon Pix follows Dear Sir (1995) and 1996's Myra
Lee and What Would the
Community Think and seeks to trump them all.
Gone is previous collaborator Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth; and
while her earlier efforts are much acclaimed among her followers,
Moon Pix is clearly a bid, albeit an uncompromising one, for
The songs all sound improvised, yet they are carefully constructed.
Things like harmony and hooks and grooves are stubbornly
averted -- the closest to catchy Cat gets is a few stray
"shooop a doo"s in "American Flag." "He Turns Down" goes so
far as to feature some flowing, fluttering flute to accompany
the strong pluck-and-hum of her guitar. Some tracks, like this one,
affect a comely, Nick Drake-y drone. Others, "No Sense," for instance,
are almost blues, in which she searches for vocal notes, for
words, for strings to finger and pull you along. Though her work is
spare, the arrangements are supple -- thunder sounds and double-
tracked vocals on "Say" (sample lyric: "what defeats people is
a double confession") and even a triple-tracked vocal
on "Metal Heart," a layer cake of Cat not at all harmonizing
"Back of Your Head" is almost busking, just Cat and guitar
-- and pauses filled with silence, resuming with lyrics like
"can't you see them going to hell?" Amazingly, "Moonshiner"
is the old Bob Dylan/Clancy Brothers folk chestnut, not that
her version resembles anything folky. More surprising is a
sudden shift to rudimentary piano well into the album, on
"Colors and the Kids," of which the memorable sentiment is that
"it's hard to go into the city 'cos you wanna say hello to
everybody." "Cross Bones Style" is nearly Appalachian, while
on "Peking Saint," Cat's guitar imitates a koto (Japanese stringed instrument) -- while you can't
identify specific influences or tastes, you can hear that she's
soaked up just about everything.
As if she has something to prove, as well as something to say
(though what she's saying is close to indecipherable), the album
is long, and it transmits something of her own enduring ordeals,
replete with the night-logic of dreams and visions and, ultimately,
worries about feeling weird. It's not an easy listen, and
one worries about her sanity. Even for pop music, then,
an exceedingly odd album. The saving grace is that
Cat Power's music is not self-consciously morbid and self-dramatizing
(though that would no doubt boost her popularity) but is just not like
anything we're used to hearing. Go for it if you're willing to be
challenged, otherwise approach with caution.