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Album Review: “Sun” – Cat Power

Sun - Cat Power

I can almost guarantee your experience with the new Cat Power record, Sun, will not go as you expect it to. It has been about six years since The Greatest was released and a lot has changed for Power since then: there has been a cover record, a bankruptcy, and a split from her longtime boyfriend Giovanni Ribisi. All of those things transpired as Power gained more notoriety, was christened the current Empress of Blue Eyed Soul (sorry Joss Stone) and appeared in a couple of movies so she could, you know, try new things. After more than half a decade of alterations, Power has finally transformed the most integral aspect of her musicianship... no, not her voice; you'd never need to change something that impressive... her sound.

The word "sun" conjures warm, bright images, and frankly those are two terms which are rarely used to describe Power or her music. Thus, it would appear Power is using the title to prepare her listeners for the new light which engulfs her music. It would have been both easy and depressingly predictable for Power to just go through the motions and release her next collection of vintage-dyed barroom ramblings, but Power decided to leave the trappings of the past behind and opted for more modern raiments.

Sun opens with Cherokee, a track which feels like a cross between Moon Pix and You Are Free-era Power (two very good things), but there is something else present. There's something more three dimensional about Sun's opening track than most of Power’s previous work. After years of stripped down minimalism and vaguely anachronistic leanings, Power embraces the digital magic which computers are capable of these days and uses it to add colors that were never present before. Cherokee gives way to the album's title track, and if Power chose to name her album after this song for no metaphorical reasons whatsoever, but merely for the song’s merits (which is highly unlikely), it’s an understandable decision. Sun is a swirl of synthesizers and ticking drums which possesses no trace of Power’s old sonic palette, but instead feels like she is trying to lure you, siren-like, through a cloud of sparkling electric dust.

The album's lead single, Ruin, sounds as good as it did when I featured it as a Clef Notes track of the week about a month ago, but when heard within the context of the album it becomes fully realized. The song's verses are sinuous bits of triumphant tension buttressed by an incessant piano line and later released by a bass and drum-produced disco thump in the choruses. Oh, and the vocal hook of “What are we doing?/We’re sitting on a ruin” is pure gold. The major highlight from the record's first half is 3,6,9, a track which features some sublime voice layering and harmonizing, atop a somewhat bare bones groove reminiscent of Get Behind Me Satan-era White Stripes. 3,6,9 appears to be one of the most beloved songs on the record among those who have already voiced opinions, and I am assuming the easy-to-remember, fun-to-sing hook is the reason for its appeal. Whatever the reason, it’s a damn good song.

Not everything on Sun is shiny and new, however. Songs like Always On My Own and Human Being showcase the darkness which fans have come to expect from Power, and the new levels of production make them resonate more ominously than ever before. There is so much bite and menace to the tenebrous tracks on Sun that at times I thought I was listening to a PJ Harvey record (I am sure that makes a lot of people out there pretty happy). Beyond those tracks, nearly every song contains at least one turn of phrase or confession you know leads to a heartbreak or disappointment that Power doesn’t feel the need to fully share with you. Don’t let the girl fool you; things are just as broken as they were before, they’re just in a different array now.

As far as flaws go, this record possesses only two that come to my ear. First there is the meandering and mark-missing Manhattan: basically the song is far too repetitive and never really develops in a satisfying way, though at times you think it will, which gives it that “itch you can’t scratch” sensation (never a good thing). Then there’s the eleven minute Nothing But Time, which may very well be the album’s centerpiece, and contains many great musical ideas, but should have been edited down to a more reasonable length. Also, the presence of Iggy Pop does nothing to aide the track whatsoever.

All in all, this record may alienate some of Power’s late adopters who have been waiting for the next batch of songs to drink and cry to - but those people don’t really matter. The truth is, Sun is a very bold direction for Power to be headed in, and one that I hope she explores to its farthest reaches. Sun may not be what you expected but, I assure you, it’s better.

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