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Cat Power
Sun Matthew Foster , September 12th, 2012 01:09

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So here's Sun, in which an uncharacteristically swaggering Chan Marshall makes a tortured six year gestation sound effortless. If the Cat Power backstory so far has touched on some of the darker sides of human nature, on dependency, abuse and despair, Sun is the light at the end of one hell of a tunnel, a record brimming with an assurance and playfulness that, if a little dorky in places, is about as cathartic as pop gets. Without laying on the cod-psychology, Sun sounds like an LP by someone who's done her time and come out the other side laughing.

That streak of defiance is there from the off, the bracing 'Cherokee' marrying terse percussion with a chorus of Marshall voices to fashion one of those album openers that can do nothing but snag you in for a listen. Single 'Ruin' sits the younger Marshall (and a few pampered upstarts) down for a chat about the perils of "bitching, complaining" when most of the world never gets it this good, and does so to a funky (no, really) guitar backing and deliciously simple piano riff. The soul stomp of 'Silent Machine' is enigmatic, sexy and subtle, while 'Peace and Love''s gawky semi-rap delivery cracks a smile at some poor bastard's expense. If Sun had been an in-joke title at some point, it doesn't show by the end product: this album just feels good.

Marshall's single-minded insistence on self-producing in the face of label demands is, it turns out, mostly a good thing. It's hard to imagine many producers for this kind of high profile release letting, for instance, something as slender as 'Manhattan' out in the form it takes here: built around a simple, cheap drum and piano loop, the track is sweet-natured and unadorned, and all the better for its unfussy leanings. Self-production also results in cute little quirks like the unexpected auto-tune vocal coda to the title track, or the generous space and far-out icy synths of the understated 'Always on My Own'. 

While Marshall plays nearly everything on Sun, it rarely feel like she's over-indulging or hitting some middle-aged muso streak. This is, after all, an artist who reportedly stopped writing for months when a friend merely hinted that her latest work sounded like her old stuff: it's very clearly an LP crafted by someone still trying to push herself. What that means, of course, is that some of those people who need Cat Power to sound like a mess, or who are still in their own patch of hell, might come away feeling let down by a lack of gut-wrenching moments. In some ways, Sun brings to mind Elliott Smith's Figure 8, or Wilco's post - A Ghost Is Born work; carefully constructed, musically ambitious but made by artists taking respite from the kind of turbulence that made their name.

It feels selfish, then, to snark about the faintly absurd, eleven-minute 'Nothin' But Time', which is, however much I try to spin it otherwise, pretty much a U2 song. Even if an Iggy Pop guest vocal does its best to lend the track some grit, it's a bit 'Everybody Hurts' in its imparting of patronising chin-up advice and contains a truly teeth-gnashing line that really does sing "it's up to you / to be a superhero". 'Human Being', too, lays it on a bit thick with talk of "people on TV" who "get shot in their very own street", as if, you know, we hadn't sussed that most of our white boy/girl problems were grand-scale meaningless. 

But that's nit-picking, really, the kind of bitchiness Marshall pre-empted on 'I Don't Blame You' in 2003 when she spat "they never owned it / and you never owed it to them anyway". Instead, Marshall should be applauded for not trying to fake the safety of sadness: it would be a brave critic indeed who tried to level the accusation that this stuff is insincere when the whole record has been an obvious labour of love. Whether you think Sun is Marshall's crowning glory probably depends on the kind of Cat Power you're after, then, but as an album on its own terms, the terms on which it deserves to stand, it's honest, accomplished, and pretty much just beautiful.

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Sep 12, 2012 6:17am

The Iggy Pop track is Nothin' But Time not Peace and Love. Although Marshall took control of the production, she did enlist the help of Philippe Zdar (if you're going to talk about the production, particularly with the electronic influences here, it seems odd to ignore this point). I always hold out for Quietus reviews, but disappointed by this. The assumption that an uptempo Cat Power equates to a happy Chan Marshall is reductive and misses the mark - there is a melancholic undertone to Sun that belies the huge thematic u-turn alluded to in this review.

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Sep 12, 2012 6:30am

In reply to Victoria :

I agree in the most part with what you're saying, particularly the review's assertion that this is an upbeat album in any way. But I do think it's a much more defiant and confident Chan Marshall as compared to the vulnerability of her previous work, which is perhaps what the review is hitting on. Also, I agree Zdar deserves a mention but as he was only responsible for mixing and not the production of the sounds themselves (synths, heavier beats etc) it really is all Cat Power, he just made it sonically shiny.

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Matt Foster
Sep 12, 2012 8:09am

In reply to Victoria :

Thanks for pointing out the track error Victoria, mix up in my notes.

In my view, there's a lot of upbeat, or at least defiant stuff on there, and I felt the general sound of the album was one of confidence even if darker lyrics on tracks 3,6,9 leave room for plenty of interpretation. I'm sorry it comes across like I'm saying this is a 'happy' record: what I thought I was trying to say is that it's self-assured, and certainly less devastating than her previous work.

Appreciate the debate though!

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Sep 12, 2012 8:17am

In reply to Matt Foster:

^ tracks like 3,6,9

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Wilma Cowgate
Sep 12, 2012 12:02pm

This album is inane garbage, just like Chan's last cover's album and like 90% of the the laughably titled "Greatest."

Without dorks acting faking empathy for nonsense ("She's gets that I get and might wanna fuck") these records would have about THREE positive reviews, which is about what they deserve.

This elevation of years of banality to "artistic triumph" is one of the most ludicrous charades in popular music... U2-like indeed.

If Chan looked like her ex- label mate Jennifer O'Connor nobody we wouldn't even be having this discussion.

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Sep 12, 2012 12:22pm

Ah c'mon, 'Nothing But Time' U2-like? I know that lyrically it may come across as ever so slightly platitudinous but when she sings it, she really fucking means it. I think part of the genius of the song is that it just keeps on going, so much so that even a cynic like me starts to believe what she's saying.

Besides, it reminded me more of 'Heroes' than any U2 song and that was before I read that she'd asked Bowie first to do what is now the Iggy part. Besides his wise-as-an-oak tree voice suits it better. Other than that minor quibble, your review was bang on. Though you didn't mention that hawk sound effect on 'Cherokee' which I'm still not sure about. Bit naff but maybe it works.

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Sep 12, 2012 5:08pm

In reply to Wilma Cowgate:

Ouch baby... Tell me what you really think... But you're right look at Liz phair vs Barbara manning

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Michael Block
Sep 13, 2012 3:58am

I agree that it's a surprisingly consistent album. I thought though that 'Nothin' but time' was more Bowie-esque that U2.

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Sep 13, 2012 4:56am

Its amazing that this album is getting rave reviews everywhere. Personally I think this is one of her weakest release, up there with the covers album. The electro beats sounds so dated, the songs meander and the single Ruin sounds so AOR radio fodder.

Meh, maybe Ill change my opinion when this is played live with a band...but for now..its a disappointment.

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Reggie P
Sep 14, 2012 1:03pm

In reply to :

At least Liz Phair can write some damn good tunes, yo.

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Sep 18, 2012 6:50am

In reply to Victoria :

Zdar mixed the album, Chan produced it herself.

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