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Pop Music | RECORD RACK

Stylish and soulful just the same

January 22, 2006|Natalie Nichols

Cat Power

"The Greatest" (Matador)

* * * 1/2

THE new collection by Cat Power is not about Muhammad Ali but, in a sense, the iconic soul crooner Al Green. Abetted by Green's guitarist and songwriting partner Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and other Memphis musicians, the singer-songwriter recorded at the town's legendary Ardent Studios, conjuring the lush, strings-and-horns-suffused '70s sound of Hi Records.

The idiosyncratic artist, whose real name is Chan Marshall, is known for disjointed live performances, but this understated album (due in stores Tuesday) is coherent and creatively self-assured. Like all of her work, it's a little twisted yet feels surprisingly like authentic soul: preoccupied with heartbreak and loss but still hopeful, even celebratory.

Indeed, Marshall's perpetual touchstones of romance, yearning and confession perfectly fit these languid to mid-tempo, blues-tinged tunes. Her sweet voice has a whispery, sensual quality that somehow untangles her eccentric lyrics. She can make the sense of yearning feel mournful, as with the accusatory ramble "Living Proof," or joyful, as on the blissfully expectant "Where Is My Love." Such numbers as the dirge-like title track reverberate with a mesmerizing otherworldliness that recalls the mystical alt-rock Americana of Grant Lee Buffalo.

Never so flatly confessional as to be artless, her plaintive sentiments are still nakedly honest, strangely restrained yet unfettered. Still, Marshall's singing occasionally feels distant, negating the intimacy. Even that, however, conveys shellshock more than disaffection.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

Natalie Nichols

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