The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, March 17, 2003

And what if it’s yet another illusion? What if, every time you try to reconnect with the world, you are kicked in the face and knocked back into touch? You crawl back into your self-constructed shell, further and further on each occasion. Eventually you will become tired of coming out ever again, and like Buffy, faced with the option of “real life” in a mental institution and a “fantasy life” slaying vampires but with a sister she loves and friends she cares for – which one would any “rational” person choose? You blink out at the world, never really wanting to have anything to do with it again, but you can’t help but keep listening. Which way towards freedom?

As a result, I have lately been listening to the music of introverts – some reluctant, others satisfied in their knowing isolation. Think of “Delicate Cutters,” still the defining song of Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh stabbing you with her voice before she stabs herself; drums muffled but unmissable. Think of those quiet moments on Exile In Guyville - “Canary” or “Mesmerizing,” say – where Liz Phair comes nearest to a “truth.” Or the entirely apposite closing moments of Saturday’s final episode of the highly selective country music history programme Lost Highway which discovered salvation in Gillian Welch – and specifically in “Revelator” and “I Dream A Highway.”

More than anything I have been listening to You Are Free, the new album by Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, and her first of original material since 1998’s Moon Pix. There was an album of cover versions in 2000, and on the new album there are two “covers” which both illuminate the songs around them and redefine the concept of redefinition.

Marshall’s is one of the most distinctive female voices in contemporary music; what are the best benchmarks for comparison? Sinead O’Connor, perhaps; a vague element of the compassionate ballad-singing Dusty Springfield; possibly some Janis Ian. But none of these is especially satisfactory. Marshall never has the need to shout or snarl; the extremely careful yet tremulous middle range in which she stays can embrace, hug, the listener, in the same way as Gail Brand’s more contemplative trombone playing does. She frequently sounds on the verge of tears; she more frequently drives this listener to tears. Musically I think of the same compressed avantness with compassion which was characteristic of mid-period Raincoats – but again, that doesn’t really help. It’s a slightly more rough-hewn counterpart to Welch’s Time (The Revelator), but that doesn’t tell you a damn thing.

The opening track “I Don’t Blame You” features Marshall on what sounds like the Langley Schools’ gymnasium piano, playing systematic, nursery-like block chords while she delivers an elegy to an unnamed guitarist who has quit (music? life?) because “they wanted to hear that sound/that you didn’t wanna play.” I’d guess there was an indirect aesthetic link to Joni’s Blue - which is where, let’s face it, all this music returns to in the end – but there’s no elation here; it’s like a post-mortem on one life while she entreats you to enter another. Thus the semi-title track “Free,” the nearest this album comes to an anthem, an urging to understand why anyone should play or listen to music – “Don’t be in love with the autograph/Just be in love when you love that song.” Guitars riff, and on several occasions the drums threaten to kick in, but never quite do – there’s a bass drum pulse halfway through which could be House in a different context – and easy pleasure is clearly not bought here. The sustained tension give the song its true dynamic.

“Good Woman” is a reluctant goodbye song. She leaves because “I don’t want to be a bad woman/and I can’t stand to see you be a bad man.” Warren Ellis’ violin prowls the song like a razor ready to slash, while David Campbell’s string arrangement and a duopoly of backing vocals, one from a children’s choir (“Maggie & Emma” are the sleeve credits) and a deeper one from low-key guest star Eddie Vedder. The impression is one of a Carter Family singalong while the bulldozers and process servers move in on them. “Speak For Me” with Dave Grohl contributing both bass and drums, is the nearest the record comes to a rocker, but again the dynamic is thankfully far more Neu! than Nickelback (and the Neu! influence was, as has previously been noted, evident on the last Foo Fighters album).

“Werewolf” is one of the record’s two covers (of a Michael Hurley song); distended harmonics sing over a probing string arrangement (again by David Campbell, with particularly good use of ‘cellos), Marshall drawing out sympathy for an unlikely recipient. “Fool” initiates what might be interpreted as a trilogy about the State of the Union, with Marshall singing about how “the USA is our daily bread/And no one is willing to share it…A direct hit of the senses/You’re disconnected…It’s not that it’s death/It’s just on the tip of your tongue/And you’re so silent/Wanting to live and laugh all the time/Sitting along with your tea and your crime…” Or perhaps, as with George Michael’s “You Have Been Loved,” it’s a benignly accusatory cuddle for someone who doesn’t need to feel like a victim. It also obliquely brings to mind the painful ending of Marvin Gaye’s “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” where Gaye sings (or weeps) “It’s too late to live and love and….ohhhhh.” “The war we have won, we’re winning again” sings Marshall at the song’s close.

Then Grohl returns on drums for the next two tracks, “He War” (“I’m not that hot new chick/And if you want me to run with it/We’re onto your same old trick”) and the almost drum ‘n’ bass-like hissing, stuttering rhythm which powers "Shaking Paper,” with its unambiguous “Big shot gun with no guns/Big shot army with no army at all…Demons despise the sound of shaking paper.” Like the one Hans Blix is trying to shake?

From then on, having realised that the world isn’t going to negotiate with her, Marshall slowly retreats back into a contemplative darkness, beginning with the good cop to Arthur Brown’s bad cop that is “Babydoll,” where she urges the song’s subject (“black is all you see”) to “turn out the light, set yourself on fire, say goodnight.” Rediscover carnality, and thereby life. And yet, such an ominously poignant piano line…which leads to another request for a redefinition of freedom, “Maybe Not,” a song which could easily be interpreted as a song to America, urging them to turn back from the brink: “A dream that I see/Don’t kill it, it’s free/You’re just a man (note that subtle paraphrasing of the punctum of Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” – everyone accusing Wynette of being blandly yea-saying always forget the far-from-throwaway lyric “after all, he’s just a man”)…We can all be free/Maybe not with words/Maybe not with a look/But with your mind….Shake this land.” One final warning before the seer performs the remarkable feat of retreating into her shell, and simultaneously opening her soul up to the world.

What happens if we don’t set ourselves free is brutally spelt out in the record’s devastating final moments. Firstly, “Names” – a quietly brutal postscript to Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” the song which Tori Amos has tried but failed to write these past dozen years, wherein Marshall, singing as though exhausting her body of the last sniff of oxygen, describes five childhood friends of hers who came to horrible ends. The kind of song which says more in its emotional straightforwardness than any number of cynical, overacted, ill-written BBC TV dramas. Because she is not lecturing you or shouting at you – “take a look at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. He’s not inventing them, he’s not interpreting them, he’s just painting them” – she’s just letting you know in the quietest, deepest, most hurting way that anyone can.

After a brief interlude of respite, and the record’s last display of what could only distantly be described as assertiveness, in the song “Half Of You” (“When you give half of you/I want all of you”), we suddenly descend into another requiem for the world/the individual in the record’s second cover, an astonishing re-reading of John Lee Hooker’s “Crawlin’ Black Spider,” retitled “Keep On Runnin’.” Here is the song which should have been used as the theme for the film Spider; atop a simple and unbearably poignant guitar line – Peter Green could, should, have both played and sung this song – Marshall sings a threnody. “Baby settle down/You’re gonna lose your home…Just keep crawlin’ ‘til the day I die.” It’s the reverse of the fantasia of “I Dream A Highway” – what happens to you when the highway has no clear destination, back to no one. Again it’s a plea to you to be free (free from death? free from crawling? free from compromise? free from life?).

The epilogue returns to the same block chord piano which supplied the prologue: “Evolution.” Marshall sounds as though she’s playing a reluctant Death March, and Vedder returns for some low-register harmony vocals, sounding uncannily like Stuart Staples of Tindersticks (think of the latter’s quietest and most shattering moments such as “Cherry Blossoms”). They sing their siren warning to the world like refugees from Powell and Pressburger’s The Edge Of The World - right in our ears but a million miles away, only because we let them be. A relaunching of Noah’s Ark to escape the imminent deluge – “Better call all the ships…better call the fishermen…better call the head nurse…better call with some resistance…better call on revolution/Better way to make a revolution/Better make your mind up quick.” A Biblical apocalypse, worthy of John Martin’s red and black paints. Breughel’s thundercloud on the verge of demolishing the Tower of Babel. And it’s all so quiet. Like a dream…but we have to choose whether to wake up and act, or to be lulled into an imagined utopia and stay there as the circle burns around us. An implorement to look towards the Northern light again, and then Eastwards to where it all began, and to celebrate what’s left of the world, what’s left of us, before it all goes West forever. Before the vision fades. Before the focus twists.

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