Secret Meeting score: 90
by Philip Moss
Picture the scene. You are in an isolated farmhouse. It’s well after midnight. And you’re awoken from a hallucinatory nightmare. You don’t know who or what it is. But in a gush, prose flow violently into your mind. You grab a guitar. You turn on your portable tape recorder and you scribble your thoughts down as fast as they come. Then you snooze for the next few hours, and awaken in the morning to find a tape full of magnificent poetry. Now, imagine this story is real. Because it is. And this is exactly how Chan Marshall aka Cat Power wrote over half of her seminal 1998 record, Moon Pix.
With a hiss of squealing feedback and a slowed down, thumping, backwards drumbeat sampled from Beastie Boys’ 1986 song, Paul Revere, the opening song, American Flag, is not musically representative of what is to come. But across four and half minutes of controlled, considered angst, its ambiguous lyric – ‘My friend sits at the drum / His magic hand feels nothing but time / Nothing but time’ – creeps like the best poesy, weaving itself into your conscious. But no immediate answers are offered. No, Marshall does not do the work for you. The thinking is left to the listener.
After writing the record, she headed for Australia, choosing producer, Matt Voigt, and the Dirty Three’s Mick Turner (guitars) and Jim White (drums) as her collaborators. Backed by White’s drunk, sprauchle drums, No Sense’s reflective lyric bursts out through a Bends-era, Radiohead-evoking vocal melody – ‘Do you remember that night at context / Making up shit like we were animals / We made no sense / No sense / We had no sex’.
Over a field recording of rumbling thunder and a solitary, picked electric guitar, Say carries a lonely positivity – ‘when no one is around, love will always love you’ – before it slips away under the thunder’s crackles at its conclusion. While Metal Heart, in many ways the record’s centrepiece, exhibits an assuredness that instinctively pushes her to trust her own intuition- ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found / Was blind, but now I see you / How selfish of you to believe / In the meaning of all the bad dreaming’.
Credited in the sleeve notes as being inspired by ‘The Bob Dylan’, her version of the traditional piece, Moonshiner, is a thoughtful interpretation of a song that has also been reworked by, amongst others, Elliott Smith, Jeff Tweedy and Dylan himself on his revered Bootleg Series Volume One. But Marshall makes it her own, and tonally both the lyrics and ambient feel slots onto the record’s B-side perfectly. Plus, there’s something very right about traditional music being tackled on this record because the level of penwomanship that envelops this song is of an equally transcendent and high crafted standard.
There’s also evidence to suggest Marshall has had influence on contemporary artists. Before Karen O had even found her voice, Marshall already had hers, and on Cross Bones Style the resemblance is startling. But unlike much of O’s work with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Voigt ensures that Marshall’s voice dominates the scene. Her stories are at the centre of this special record, and at no point is her clarity lost under a sea of noise.
Perhaps the album’s highlight is Colors And The Kids – a contemplative piano ballad that sits apart from the embellished arrangements of those that surround it on the record. Looking back fondly on childhood, Marshall digs deep into her psyche, and begs questions of how and why she finds herself in the place she does (as a 26 year old) at the time of writing- ‘When we were teenagers we wanted to be the sky/ Now all we wanna do is go to red places / And try to stay outta hell’. Again, the ‘red places’ are equivocal, but with so many of the record’s songs written in the first person, and the pronoun ‘we’ being used throughout, one would assume that her partner in crime that is being referenced is her then partner, songwriter, Bill Callahan.
For years I’ve tried to ‘get into’ Marshall’s music, but no matter where I found myself in her back catalogue, something didn’t click. The Greatest felt a rather throwaway, The Covers Record and Jukebox seemed pointless, parts of Sun left me feeling a little cold, and What Would The Community Think just passed me by- to the point where I wondered why my friends gave her such big hype, and artists that I adored would reference her influence so strongly. But after seeing her perform at last month’s All Points East festival, I decided to try again- and, for some reason, stumbled across Moon Pix which was a record I previously did not know existed. Sometimes, music is about opening the right door at the right time in the right place- as if it’s magic, almost. And just like Moon Pix’s songs appeared for Marshall in her abandoned, South Carolina farmhouse that night, now they’ve appeared for me too. And – with the door now firmly open – it’s clear to see they really are magic.