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Tucson Weekly Soundbites

Divine Feline

By Stephen Seigel

MAY 10, 1999:  A few years back, a small group of indie rock dweebs gathered at the late and lamented Sound Addict record store on North Stone Avenue to see a performance by a woman who called herself Cat Power.

Most of us didn't really know that much about her--just that she was supposed to be painfully shy, sometimes even performing with her back to the audience, even though her shows usually consisted of just her singing over her own acoustic guitar strum. Most of us had also read accounts of how these live shows were amazingly riveting.

There was a slightly uncomfortable sense of anticipation in the air. We all seemed to share the feeling we were about to witness something both difficult to watch and important to hear. I don't even remember who opened the show; we were all there to see a car wreck of a performance.

Cat Power, a.k.a. singer/songwriter Chan Marshall, never showed. While the cause of the no-show was later revealed as a booking miscommunication, it wouldn't have surprised anyone if she'd simply decided not to show. Her reputation preceded her.

In those earlier days, her recorded band consisted of guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and in 1996 alone Cat Power released two singles and two full-length albums (one of those, Myra Lee, was released on Shelley's Smells Like Records). Still, it wasn't until last year's Moon Pix (Matador) that Cat Power "broke," as they say.

Recorded in Australia with two-thirds of an Aussie instro-indie combo called the Dirty Three (guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White), the album shows Marshall finally finding her voice. While some had written Cat Power off as being terminally depressing, the new songs--penned after the death of two of Marshall's close friends, no less--find a sense of hope in the utter hopelessness of life.

Indeed, it's a change Marshall herself recognized, as she said in a recent interview in Paper magazine: "These songs are somehow different. I feel like I've switched over: Now, instead of blues, I feel like I'm doing hymns."

The album also shows a seemingly newfound confidence. Where she would often sing-speak or miss notes on earlier albums, Moon Pix shows her completely in control of her voice as it careens from a sultry, melancholic whisper to a banshee-like howl. Not surprisingly, the world at large has now taken notice of the beautiful woman with the captivating voice--virtually every music magazine in existence has since extolled the virtues of Cat Power.

Last year the Tucson legion of indie rock fanatics--along with 100 or so other curious onlookers--finally got a chance to see Cat Power live. Backed by White and former Moby Grape guitarist, Mark Moore, Cat Power's performance at Club Congress was completely riveting, proving Marshall to be one of those rare performers you simply can't take your eyes off of, even though she's standing almost completely still, just playing her guitar and singing her songs.

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