Mainstream for Cat Power? Maybe

Chan Marshall, also known as Cat Power, has had a roller-coaster career. She released her first album, “What Would the Community Think,” in 1996 at the age of 15. That record established her as one of the most fascinating singer/songwriters of the folk-rock world. With her sultry, definitive voice and mature content, Chan proved to be one of the more interesting indie acts of the 90s.

Although Cat Power’s albums over the past 10 years have garnered high praise from most rock critics, her reputation has been tarnished by her onstage antics. Perhaps her most notable concert breakdown came in 1999 at the Bowery Ballroom. After performing only a few songs, she asked the audience what it would feel like to be hit by a machete. She then collapsed onto the stage in tears while her backup band stormed off stage.

Other concert meltdowns, along with her rather outlandish subject matter on previous albums, have brought Chan Marshall little mainstream acceptance. Her latest album, “The Greatest” (not a greatest hits collection, despite the title) shows Cat Power struggling for a more conventional sound.

Unlike her other albums, Marshall, who is backed by an authentic Memphis band, focuses on more down-to-earth themes. The result is an album that will most likely put Cat Power on the map.

The opening and title track, “The Greatest,” kicks the album off to a great start. The song features Marshall on piano with a terrific string ensemble backing her. The following two songs √¢?” “Living Proof” and “Lived in Bars” √¢?” are without a doubt the highlights of the album. They both are rollicking southern tunes, with the latter building up to a catchy, upbeat climax rarely heard in Cat Power’s prior albums.

With the first three songs, “The Greatest” effectively fuses Chan Marshall’s odd indie style with her new Memphis band. The rest of the album never quite reaches the same level as those three songs, but it does feature some interesting tracks. “Could We” and “After It All” sound like straight-up pop songs, while “Where is my Love” beautifully mixes a string arrangement with a piano melody.

The album closes with two of its best songs. “Hate,” a solo acoustic number, contains some of the most revealing and interesting lyrics on the entire album. Marshall croons, “I said I hate myself, and I want to die,” over a haunting acoustic guitar. “Love & Communication,” the final track of the album, is decisively louder than the rest of the record. Overall, these last two songs sound the most like Cat Power’s previous albums.

Speaking of Chan Marshall’s prior work, you might be wondering just how The Greatest stacks up in comparison. Unlike her past records, “The Greatest” clearly has a softer, more country vibe. This, along with some of the pop numbers found in the middle of the album, is sure to alienate some of Marshall’s longtime fans. However, the softer sound actually seems to suit Marshall’s voice rather nicely.

Although fans are bound to criticize Marshall for sounding way too “pop” on her new album, the end result is not half bad.

“The Greatest” is definitely an album worth checking out, and do not be surprised if it ends up catapulting Cat Power to mainstream success, if only she could get over those concert meltdowns.