Published Jan 01, 2006Why Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is a coddled indie baby instead of a homeless musician is really anyone's guess. Certainly, she is the kind of oddball who'd be right at home on Irwin Chusid's collection of Outsider Music, though her reputation for drama onstage and off has stoked a cult of celebrity that is at odds with that genre. Her new record You Are Free opens with a paean to a fellow musician's anti-performance - something Marshall herself is famous for even as she insists it is not self-referential. It is powerful nonetheless, and the first half of this album surges forth with some of the most interesting work she has ever done - gravelly blues rockers played with the confidence and road-worthiness that the last three years of touring have provided. Also surprisingly evident is her sense of humour: "Free" is all rock bravado, but stripped to sinewy muscle, and something akin to Marshall rapping crops up in the driving anthem "He War." This driving military beat resurfaces several times, and the lyrics throughout are more assured and direct than anything she's done before. Yet this long-deferred follow-up to Moon Pix is at once all grown up and helplessly regressive. While the first half is as direct and focused as Moon Pix was diffuse and moody, it's as if such an assured opening was too taxing to sustain. It is just past the midway point that the record first falters, with a string plaintive quiet songs that feel unfinished by comparison. There are still many gorgeous moments, but they make for a perfunctory ending after early promises to soar. It's still the best thing she's done to date; the source of all the creepiness is a little more up close, and in its banality, more human and affecting. This is no longer Cat Power haunted by ghosts, but by human cruelty and inaction.