- like most every other song on Cat Power’s new album, ”You Are Free,” is about inquietude, balkiness, dread. Since its release in late February, ”You Are Free” has topped the playlists of the country’s left-of-the-dial college radio stations. It has a pared-down sound — a couple of grave minor chords, a muffled guitar, a piano with bare-room echoes: the sound of a sleepless night. It has lyrics that tend toward the dreamy and mystic and even biblical: faint visions, quiet supplications, muted lamentations. It’s tentative, amorphous folk and folk rock for people — and a moment — too unsettled for the certainty of anthems.
Cat Power is the singer-songwriter Chan (pronounced ”Shawn” and short for Charlyn) Marshall, accompanied over the past eight years and six recordings by a shifting set of backing musicians and vocalists — on ”You Are Free,” they include the Seattle-grunge stalwarts Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder. She took the name from a Cat Diesel Power hat, a not-uncommon sight in the South, which is where she grew up, bouncing between her divorced parents. Her father liked roots music, and she evidently did, too, for the songs she wrote and eventually recorded after arriving in New York in 1992, at 20, had an old-timey feel right out of Harry Smith’s ”Anthology of American Folk Music,” though it seemed clear she had listened to a lot of Patti Smith too. Like Smith, she became a downtown legend of sorts for her erratic live performances: singing with her back to the audience, walking offstage after two or three mumbled songs, a chanteuse on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Paradoxically, she came into her own — her transcendently sad musical self — on ”The Covers Record,” a recording of other people’s songs released three years ago. To hear her sing the Stones’ ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is to fathom the anguish that feeds teen-rebel anger.