Jun 11

Cat Power: “He War”


If you look realllly closely, you can see Chan Marshall hiding from her fans in the tall grass.

Cat Power is at once beguiling and frustrating. She possesses a wonderfully smoky, sultry voice that wouldn’t be out of place singing torch songs in a late-night piano lounge. While her albums may indeed be well suited to late-night playing, she instead puts that voice to more interesting use singing spare, often dark songs that despite their sparseness resonate with a quiet intensity. In the process, she remains a fascinating, rather mysterious presence — “Cat Power, ” in fact, is a stage name, her actual name being Chan Marshall.

The frustrating part about her has historically been her live performances: an attractive woman with a strong personality and huge potential to be a commanding stage presence, to the contrary she barely seems able to tolerate being on stage with all the attention on her. She stops and starts songs at random, makes no eye contact or effort at interacting amiably with her audience, and otherwise acts as though she has been forcibly dragged out on stage against her will to put on a show. From what I’ve read, it’s more a case of stage fright rather than a dislike of her fans, but one can only wonder why she would bother performing live if it’s that difficult. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, but at the same time, the fans who’ve paid to see her sing deserve better. I have witnessed her shows twice myself, and admittedly she may have improved since the last time I saw her a few years ago, but both times were disappointing, and my experiences are echoed by many others who have seen her.

None of that detracts from the greatness of her music, however; in fact, knowing about her issues playing live somehow adds more depth to the experience of listening to her recordings…her complicated personality in turn enhances the complexity of the songs. One of my favorite of her songs is also probably one of her most accessible: “He War,” from her 2003 album, You Are Free. Beginning with a simple few plinks on the piano that subsequently continue throughout the song, the song builds with a grungy electric guitar strum and riff and then kicks into a groove when the drums start up. Her singing is understated, yet powerful at the same time — I particularly like how she sings the “I’m not that hot new chick” bridge section, funky and detached. I’m not entirely sure what “He War” is about…it seems to be about a relationship that’s either one-sided, falling to pieces, or both. But don’t quote me on that — all I’ll say for sure is that Cat Power nailed it on this one.

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