Moody pop singer struggles for balance

Since her debut under the moniker Cat Power a decade ago, Chan Marshall has seen her star rising slowly but surely from the modest record collections of a few rabid fans to the pages of almost every music and entertainment magazine in the Western world. With her new record, suggestively titled “The Greatest,” Marshall sharpens her focus while letting a little bit of her edge fall to the wayside.
The folk-pop songwriter charges out of the gate with the title track starting things off with dreamy piano plodding underneath moving strings. The backbone of the record is the musicianship of a few legendary Memphis studio musicians. Mabon Hodges, his brother Leroy Hodges and Steve Potts fill out Marshall’s songwriting with a familiar sound given a modern pop feel. These guys are no joke having played behind heavy hitters like Al Green, Aretha Franklin and Neil Diamond in the past.
The rhythm section manages to establish a strong presence without burying us with technicality, choosing instead to let Marshall’s smoky, aged vocals take center stage. Her voice is beautiful and carries her words through the center of the songs with an almost eerie nostalgia, yet for some reason, producer Stuart Sikes chose to lay Marshall’s vocals underneath a somewhat artificial reverb. This leaves her vocal chords sounding almost dusty – a strange choice, considering all the organic presence she is known for.
Lyrically, Marshall isn’t exactly breaking new ground, but the words are there, sounding more important in the way they flow into each other than in what they’re trying to convey. The subject matter adds to the dreamy, R&B flavor of the entire record.
In the past, Marshall has been known for her “tortured introvert” pseudo-image, but with so much media attention these days, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the now Miami-based songwriter (who hasn’t even had a manager during the duration of her lengthy career) is far from hiding in her apartment.
Songs like “The Moon” contain seemingly cynical musings aimed at some tongue-tied love interest. “When I lay me down/will you still be around/when they put me six feet underground/will the big bad beautiful you be around.” While sometimes biting, Marshall’s lyrics never really take a stab at the listener’s comfort zone, reminding us of the passive and easy-to-swallow writing of contemporaries like Norah Jones. “The Greatest” is probably best compared to Jones’ pop-jazz. Whether or not Marhall’s latest is destined to be the same Holy Grail of easy listening is yet to be seen, but the comparisons are there.
Perhaps the greatest danger to the accessibility of the “The Greatest” is the dead zone that is its middle portion – eye-roll-worthy songs like “Where Is My Love” and the dangerously hateworthy drawling of “After It All.” This is one of those albums that seems like it might have been best served by some song trimming – a 13-song effort that could have been 10. The album picks back up toward the end, concluding with the jarring rock of “Love and Communication.” Oddly enough, this last track and the album’s opener may be the two greatest on the entire disc.
This album seems to be a mixture of dangerous experimentation and comfortable pop- rock. Marshall doesn’t forget what she does best, which is provide moody, dreamy pop rock perfect for quiet nights. But where she falls apart is trying to bridge the gap between retro rhythm and blues textures and modern indie. “The Greatest” is worth its price, but we may have to wait for the burgeoning pop darling’s next disc before we have an expert on our hands.