MUSIC REVIEW | Cat Power – You Are Free (2003)

In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “As far as entrees to an artist go, I think I chose really well with You Are Free.

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I often have a weird aversion to praise for music and movies.  There’s no rhyme or reason for it, but sometimes, everyone loving something makes me determined to avoid it.  Almost like if I see it or heat and like it too, then my tastes are exposed as being pedestrian and broad.  Cat Power is one of those artists who got too much praise over the years for me to ever take a chance on.  But every now and again, I realise how ridiculous my avoidance is and indulge in the odd critical darling.  Like Cat Power with You Are Free.

While the simplicity of the piano intro to I Don’t Blame You is so unassuming it’s hard to believe it could ever be used to build a memorable song, the instant Charlyn Marshall’s vocals join in, the song just grabs hold.  There’s a laconic, weariness that makes every word seem so essential.  With its staccato acoustic guitar, Free sounds like it could go bigger, but the same vocal restraint works just as well here, even if the music behind it has a little more drive.

With a dark, country, bluesy, regretful electric guitar, Good Woman hints at You Are Free going a little louder and fuller.  But the guitar remains basically the only backup with a perfectly sparse sound that more than sustains the song’s almost four minute running time.  When that more full sound does come with drums, bass and a couple of guitars on Speak for Me, Marshall’s voice becomes a little bigger to stand above that louder band dynamic.  And as much as the opening trio of songs had me on board with the laid back approach, hearing the potential power of her voice definitely made me want more.

With the help of a haunting violin, Werewolf is yet more proof of just how versatile Marshall is as a singer.   Or maybe, her voice isn’t as versatile as it is universal.  Because while the musical styles on display on You Are Free are varied and wide ranging, Marshall’s voice rarely changes to match these styles, while sounding amazing every time.  And as much as I appreciate the variety on offer here, the more straight forward rock and roll of He War is a welcome return.

On a record full of moments of gentle control, Half of You and Keep on Runnin’ (Crawlin’ Back Spider) find all new levels of doing so much with so little.  It can’t be easy to play instruments and sing this quietly, while still making songs that deliver such an undeniable impact.  Ending with the perfect use of Eddie Vedder’s baritone lethargy, Evolution manages to somehow go even deeper down in its restraint, while losing none of the oomph.
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As far as entrees to an artist go, I think I chose really well with You Are Free.  It never seemed to get too caught up in a formula that makes me think I now know what Cat Power music is all about.  But it had more than enough constants to make me know I want to listen to more of what Charlyn Marshall has done.

Cat Power

Other Opinions Are Available.  What did these people have to say about You Are Free?
Rolling Stone

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