Most concert documents are taped in front of an audience. Cat Power''s live DVD, "Speaking for Trees," featured Chan Marshall alone in the woods with a guitar. Self-consciously arty? No doubt. But it suited the sullen singer, giving her a chance to ramble without the distraction of people staring at her.
Marshall is an uncomfortable performer, and her shows have a train-wreck appeal. When she''s feeling shy, she might perform with her back to the crowd; when she''s boisterous, she has been known to harangue concert-goers until they desert her.
Last time she came to Philadelphia, she bequeathed the spotlight to a fan plucked from the audience, who entertained the crowd with rudimentary guitar skills while Marshall spent an eternity crouching beneath the piano.
With "The Greatest" – out next week – she seems ready to engage with a larger audience. Recorded in Memphis with a cast of veteran soul musicians, Cat Power''s seventh album is her most accessible work to date. Where earlier efforts kept listeners at a distance even as Marshall bared her soul, "The Greatest" is warm. It''s the prettiest thing I''ve heard lately, and it''s the one January release I keep coming back to.
Soul brothers Mabon and Leroy Hodges – on guitar and bass, respectively – make the tone lighter, the verses tighter and the tempos livelier. Al Green used these guys back in the day, and if Marshall lacks the reverend''s charisma, well, her wounded persona is compelling in its own way.
Her smoky voice is distinctive even in the sparest of settings, but it''s never sounded lovelier than it does in the rich arrangements on "The Greatest." That voice is what draws people near, even when her stance suggests she''d rather be alone.
"Living Proof" marvels in still being alive; "The Moon" dares to imagine someone will care when she''s dead.
"Willie," a distillation of the 18-minute "Speaking for Trees" bonus track "Willie Deadwilder," is as romantic and triumphant as she gets. It''s a classic scenario – middle-aged Willie and Rebecca meet and find love after they''d resigned themselves to live without it – but given Marshall''s history as an overwhelmingly defeatist lyricist, it''s a revelation.
But even on her most upbeat album, loss, hurt feelings and ill will are in abundance. The stately title track, adorned with strings and shimmery steel guitar, gives voice to a man who''s lost his aspirations. The countryish "Empty Shell" is slightly more resolute: "I don''t want you anymore," Marshall sings. But she doesn''t sound so sure.
The band brings out her flirtatious side on "Lived in Bars," but even sultry shoo-ba-doo-oos can''t mask the threat of what she''ll find when the good times end. Overdose or suicide, nothing good''s likely to come of it.
And Marshall reverts to deepest despair when the band drops out. Boiled down to just voice and a simple, repeated guitar riff, "Hate" is a Leonard Cohen afterworld of self-loathing and recriminations.
So it''s probably for the best that Marshall''s taking her new buddies on tour to promote "The Greatest."
But that doesn''t mean she''s through with her hiding games. The closest they''re coming to Philly is a Valentine''s Day date in New York.
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More suited to the stage, perhaps, is B.C. Camplight, the alter ego of Brian Christinzio. On "Hide, Run Away," his debut, the Philly-based singer-songwriter sounds oddly comfortable talking his way into (and out of) all kinds of inappropriate domestic situations.
At his most conventional, he comes off as a bad boyfriend; in his more imaginative moments, he''s a smooth criminal. The poppy "Couldn''t You Tell" opens the album with a burst of candor: "And if you offer me a second chance, I would quickly need another."
A Cool Fool?
This shady character courts his girlfriend''s mother ("Emily''s Dead to Me"), calls the cops on a lover ("Oranges in Winter") and stalks a woman he spots on the subway ("Blood and Peanut Butter.") He''s a fool, but at least he''s a romantic one.
Lyrically, it''s all very creepy, but Christinzio''s high voice and cheery piano are charming, and it''s tough to be offended when his arsenal includes sleigh bells and strummy guitar.
Christinzio – who plays just about everything but drums, cello and trumpet – carefully crafted all the songs on "Hide, Run Away" and oversaw every last touch on it, but the album never really sounds fussy or overthought.
Each line neatly follows the one before it, but you can''t often predict what he''ll say next.
In the next couple weeks, you will have two chances to catch B.C. Camplight in the act. Christinzio (and, if he feels like company, his accomplices) will open for ''80s synth star Howard Jones at the Sellersville Theatre on Jan. 26 and alongside emo auteurs Owen and I Can Make a Mess Like Nobody''s Business at Philly''s North Star Bar on Feb. 5.