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Chan Marshall stops time. She sits at a piano or lays her guitar across her lap, and whether it’s a noisy club overflowing with drunks or a coffee house full of laptoppers, Chan Marshall draws all the attention in the room and makes the world stop spinning. As Cat Power, Marshall’s music seems to rise from nowhere, envelop the room, then vanish; listeners know they’ve been hit by something but they’re not sure what.
For 'The Greatest' (not a greatest hits, but the brand-new studio album), Marshall returned to Memphis, pursuing this time the slinky Hi Records sound of the 70s, famed for its sensuous feel and beguiling rhythms. She got Al Green’s guitarist and songwriting partner Mabon "Teenie" Hodges to play guitar on the whole album (Teenie co-wrote "Love and Happiness" and "Take Me to the River," among other soul classics). With Teenie came his Hi Rhythm bandmate (and brother) Leroy "Flick" Hodges, who plays on half of the album (Memphis A-team bassist Dave Smith supplements). Anchoring the band is Steve Potts, whose reputation on drums was solidified when the surviving members of Booker T. and the MG’s asked him to replace their late drummer, Al Jackson. Other top Memphis musicians guest on keyboards, horns and strings. Cat Power went right to the sources, and has created her own paean to the songs and styles she grew up on.
'The Greatest' adds to Cat Power’s singular sound all the elements that make an Al Green record great: Memphis horns, funky string arrangements, smooth background vocals. "Lived in Bars" is a hypnotic song that seems to start in the middle of the night and flow backward like water upstream to the source of a good time. Many songs hearken back to earlier in Cat Power’s career, like the surface simplicity of "Willie"—much more complicated upon deeper listen—and like "Where Is My Love," which sounds like it could be the first song she ever wrote, and also the one to which she has always aspired. "Living Proof," on the other hand, has an almost gospel-like swing that stands in contrast to the quieter songs. The ethereal title track is the missing link between Big Star 3rd and the 21st century; if Alex Chilton were today a beautiful young woman, he’d sound like this.
Recording in Memphis is actually a return performance for Chan Marshall. She first came to the city of Southern Soul in February 1996 to record her second album, 'What Would The Community Think?' The engineer on that session was Stuart Sikes, who recorded many sessions at the Easley-McCain Studio. Sikes leapt from indie-rock notoriety to mainstream prominence with his work mixing Loretta Lynn’s Jack White-produced Van Lear Rose, which won a Grammy.
This album was recorded at Ardent Studios, the renowned home to the Big Star legacy, also used by Stax as their alternate studio, and graced by everyone from Bob Dylan to the North Mississippi All Stars. And now, also, Cat Power.