Chan Marshall's (a.k.a. Cat Power's) 2005 Speaking to Trees DVD (consisting of a single long-shot of the artist noodling around on her guitar in a clearing in the woods for, like, a million years) was perhaps the worst, most unwatchable piece of garbage ever shat upon the heads of a loyal cult following. However, in a shocking turnabout, her new CD, The Greatest, easily lives up to its title.
A warm, wonderfully sustained mood piece, The Greatest finds the once angst-ridden Cat Power (check out her early-'90s cover of Tom Waits's "Yesterday Is Here" for a truly harrowing experience) moving further afield than ever from her indie-rock origins. The woman who was once regularly supported by members of such feral outfits as Sonic Youth and Dirty 3 here surrounds herself with legendary Memphis soul sidemen such as the Hodges Brothers, who once backed up Al Green (Marshall is a Memphis native herself). The result is totally unexpected, yet it all sounds sweetly inevitable: a smart, sometimes prickly, yet gorgeously honey-dipped make-out record that showcases Marshall's powerful, emotional, sometimes distressingly intimate voice in the most sympathetic setting it's ever had. The first two songs are simultaneously serious and playful, drawing the listener into the record's seductive, celebratory musical world, while the third, "Lived in Bars," manages to turn on a dime from a wistful slow-dance to a total get-down party track without sacrificing an ounce of groove.
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Near the end of the disc, things start to sound a little more like the Cat Power we've known all these years (the chorus of the unaccompanied "Hate" is the Kurt Cobain-referencing "I hate myself and I want / To die.") But overall, the themes and feelings on The Greatest are summed up by the title of its soaring finale: "Love and Communication."