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Chan Marshall has always been a mass of contradictions. By appearance and reputation, she’s a dainty, fragile little thing, a damaged sprite who legendarily spent many an early concert lying on the stage in a fetal position and weeping as befuddled audience members patted her shoulder and told her everything would be okay.
But once she opens her mouth and sings, little of that fragility shows up in her voice. In her lyrics, sure – her words are often just one big open wound. Her voice, however, is a powerful thing – a smoky shot of bourbon that’s pushy and assertive enough to wedge itself into a conversation between Joni Mitchell, Sophie B. Hawkins, and Toni Childs and hold its own.
Marshall’s early albums as Cat Power were too sparse, spare and scarily personal to break her out of cult artist status, but on 2006’s The Greatest she embraced Memphis soul and a broader audience took notice. Now, a half dozen years following that breakthrough, Marshall is back with her first album of original material since then. “Ruin,” the first track released from Sun (to be released September 4th by her longtime label, Matador Records), shows that Marshall is intent to expand on the new ground The Greatest broke for her and to leave her old reputation of the weeping basket case even further in the past.
“Ruins” is a fairly sprightly tune by anyone’s standards. Coming from Cat Power, it pretty much qualifies as a party track. Built atop a lively, Latin-tinged piano line, “Ruins” builds to include scratchy guitars and a bassline that’s almost disco – hell, if the percussion traveled in more of a straight line forward rather than circling back on itself every so often, “Ruins” wouldn’t be too far removed from New Order’s “Blue Monday.”
While it would be a huge overstatement to call Marshall’s vocals joyous here, they are buoyant and heady. There’s a bit of defiant celebration in the way she reels off the names of all the places she’s been before slyly hissing the word “bitchin’,” a word she uses repeatedly and apparently with great relish in the course of the song.
Cat Power’s progress as an artist has been fascinating to watch. She began as someone whose music felt like her own fragile internal monologue, a statement of feelings that caused her severe psychic pain to share. Now, “Ruins” shows that she’s reached a point where she’s willing to engage the entire world with confidence, defiance and just a little bit of a bitchin’ smirk on her face.
Click here to listen to Ruin on Spotify.