Wander Woman

Sasha Frere-Jones on Cat Power at The Kitchen

Cat Power at The Kitchen, October 3, 2018. Photos: Daniel Topete.

MILES DAVIS DID IT thirty years into his recording career, in 1981, on The Man with The Horn. Dylan only needed thirteen years to get from Bob Dylan (1962) to Blood On The Tracks (1975). Chan Marshall took twenty-three to move from Dear Sir (1995) to Wanderer (2018). What these artists found, at the end of the arc, was the moment of synthesis, when the particulars that initially marked them moved across a divide (accidents, taxes, getting high, heartbreak) and reappeared as elements of a vocabulary. The broken and twisted and obscure tendencies were folded in and out of various styles, then gathered into a single voice. Eventually, pros get back to work.  

Wanderer is the first Cat Power album after Marshall’s break with her longtime label, Matador. Her last release for Matador, 2012’s Sun, was made more or less like Wanderer—almost entirely by Marshall alone—and the two sound nothing alike. Sun was made with loads of doubling up and processing and addition, Marshall stacking herself up into a thicket of sounds and layers. Wanderer drops down into the spot where Marshall’s done most of her work—voice to the front, instruments spare and simple.  

On October 3rd, Marshall played a private show at The Kitchen to celebrate the release of Wanderer. Her first New York appearance in five years, it was a robust and welcoming forty-two minutes, a summary of what makes Marshall so good.  

Marshall sang, leaving the rest to three musicians from her Sun band: on guitar and keyboard was Erik Paparazzi and Adeline Jason was on guitar and bass. The rock solid drummer Alianna Kalaba, was also on hand. Marshall entered to the sound of Lonnie Holley’s “Six Space Shuttles and 144,000 Elephants,” which faded as she approached the microphone. She wore a Susie Cave–designed mid-calf black velvet dress edged in metalic silk ruffles, and waved sticks of incense as she sang. Her anxiety onstage has long been a part of her interaction with a crowd, the bases she must round to deliver each song. Over the years, that discomfort has been winnowed down from a plinth that could crush her to a twig. She couldn’t put it down but it wasn’t that big or hard to control.  

Cat Power at The Kitchen, October 3, 2018. Photos: Daniel Topete.

She opened with “Crossbones Style.” If Marshall has ten hits, this is one of them. For the last five years or so, she has sung into two microphones, one whose signal is untreated, the other feeding her voice into a harmonizer pedal. When she first started doing this, it seemed like a crutch and was disorienting. Of the idiosyncrasies that make Marshall herself, the mineral veins in the rock of her voice are maybe the most important. Smoothing all of that out electronically is a dicey idea, and Marshall has since adapted her approach to the glowing box on the floor. She mostly shifted to the second mic during choruses, and as the night went on, she used it less and less. By the end of the night, it had roughly the same effect as a guitarist’s whammy bar, occasionally applied.  

Next was “Pa Pa Power,” the first of several covers. Co-written by Ryan Gosling for Dead Man’s Bones, the song has popped up in Cat Power sets over the last decade or so. “Please make me better” is the refrain that recurs most often. When the song ended, Marshall scooted to the back of the stage and picked up a glass of red wine sitting on Paparazzi’s amp. “I never do this, I don’t do this anymore,” she told us. “Never do it on stage anymore, but.” After a quick sip, she moved back downstage to sing a verse and chorus of Lana Del Rey’s “White Mustang.” Unadorned and unprocessed, Marshall’s voice sounded deep and textured, adding heft to Del Rey’s opening lines: “Packing all my things for the summer, lying on my bed it's a bummer, ‘cause I didn't call when I got your number—but I liked you a lot.”  

Warmed up and in magnificent voice, Marshall moved into “Me Voy,” one of only three songs from Wanderer in her setlist. In this way, she seemed more than a little like Dylan, establishing her sound for the night (as normal as she gets) and her mood (calm and smiley). She reorganized another one of her standards, “Metal Heart,” pulling the dazed original out of itself and singing it over a lively plucked figure and a confident backbeat. It worked top to bottom. She ran through a few verses of Nico’s “These Days,” before launching into her song about a life of Dylan fanhood, “Song To Bobby.”  

The end of that song involves Dylan calling Marshall and closing a circle of admiration, or opening the circuit of history that is connected to both of them. Keeping that historical file open, Marshall opened her song “Manhattan” with another quote, very pointedly modified. Over the steady drum machine and bar-length piano chords, she sang: “Shattered, shattered. My head’s full of money-grabbers. Go ahead, bite the big Apple, don’t mind those fucking maggots—shattered.” Unclear who in Manhattan had gotten into her head.  

In 2012, while on assignment, I watched Marshall listen to the entirety of Blood On The Tracks. As dawn rose, she smoked and sang through a rainstorm, sitting next to her own pool. Someone, somewhere, now, is writing “Song to Chan.”