It's the ultimate insult, instant dismissal. We use the word to describe long films lacking Hollywood stars and jump-cuts, novels without page-burning plots that refuse tidy summation, paintings we can't judge at first sight. In pop music, we reserve the scorn for singles that don't get our heads bobbing in unison, albums that don't leap out of the speakers from the get, performers who don't play up to the audience's expectation.
By these standards, Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is the very definition of boring.
Take 1996's "In This Hole." The five-minute lead song on her third album, What Would the Community Think, consists of two tracks of bare-bones electric guitar and a rudimentary vocal melody with no discernable verse or chorus. Oh, and a triangle. Don't forget: This is Track One. It's supposed to get you hooked, draw you in. Marshall dares you to hate the song, to eject the disc and not even bother with the rest.
She dares you to be bored.
But the song is bewitching, in a way it never could be if it followed the traditional pop pattern of tension and release. Marshall uses droning tones and simplistic repetition to achieve something different. Pop songs normally offer us relief; Cat Power songs seem to doubt that relief will ever arrive. They drift along with all the dread and bliss of a narcotic haze, perfectly married to Marshall's sparse, suicide-note lyrics.
Of course, Marshall didn't invent the sound. It reaches all the way back to the foundation of American music, to Appalachian ballads and front-porch blues. By the early '90s, Beat Happening had established an indie-rock niche for amateurish anti-songwriting. Cat Power contemporaries like Bill Callahan (aka Smog) and Will Oldham (aka Palace and, later, Bonnie "Prince" Billy) have earned raves with their dark, so-quiet-you-have-to-strain-to-hear-them compositions.
What set Marshall apart from the pack was her voice, always her voice. Dusky, smoky, lived-in: Whatever adjective you want to use, the woman's vocal instrument has always been a thing of wonder — at once sultry, menacing and haunting.
Throughout the late '90s, Marshall began tinkering with her low-budget drones without really shaking up her vision. "American Flag," which opens 1998's Moon Pix, nicks a drum sample from the Beastie Boys' "Paul Revere," but her songwriting style remains instantly recognizable. On the covers record she released in 2000 (imaginatively titled The Covers Record), Marshall manages to convert The Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" into just another dirge, translating the original's lust into naked despair.
By the time 2003's You Are Free rolled around, she had added slinky piano and layered vocals, but her aesthetic was still strong enough to reduce heavy-hitters Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder to mere background players. They were even credited almost anonymously — just "D.G." and "E.V." in the liner notes.
Cat Power shows were also exercises in anti-entertainment. Marshall would sing with her back to the crowd, cut songs off halfway through, mumble apologies. The crowds kept coming, but you had to wonder if it was for the music or the prospect of catching her in a meltdown. Village Voice blogger Tom Breihan described one concert: Marshall "was struggling against her own strengths, drowning her songs in reverb and skeletal water-torture arrangements, sending herself out onstage to die a long and slow death." He compared the "vampires" at Cat Power shows to people who attend NASCAR races craving a gory wreck.
The elephant in the room at this point was alcohol. A September 2006 article in The New York Times put Marshall's once-daily regimen at "a minibar's worth of Jack Daniel's, Glenlivet and Crown Royal," along with a fifth of Scotch and a couple beers, topped off with a swallow of Xanax. It's remarkable she was even able to stand come show time, let alone execute a flawless, professional performance.
The bottom-out came in January 2006, two weeks before the release of her most recent album, The Greatest. Marshall holed up in her Miami apartment and waited for death to come before a friend found her and got her into a hospital. Reports since then indicate she's severely limited her drinking, although she's short of 100 percent sober.
Meanwhile, The Greatest flourished critically. Marshall had traveled to Memphis to cut the record in three days with a crack team of that city's session musicians, figures legendary from their work with Al Green and Willie Mitchell in the late '60s and early '70s. The Greatest is appropriately titled, the finest work by Marshall so far and, with no exaggeration, on par with Dusty Springfield's wondrous Dusty in Memphis.
The public caught on, too. Since The Greatest was released, Marshall has earned some gigs that would have been unimaginable earlier in her career: She played a Chanel runway show and provided the soundtrack to De Beers and Cingular ads. Her live sets have reportedly improved dramatically, with Marshall belting out her indie-soul tunes with swagger and flair.
Luckily, though, she hasn't turned totally pop, and The Greatest is great precisely because she hasn't forgotten that sometimes we still need to be bored. Even amidst all the sexy horn vamps and swinging bass, songs still don't explode with giant choruses and tracks don't build to shattering climaxes. One song late in the album, "Hate," is nothing but a spare guitar and harrowing lyrics: "Let me whisper in your ear/ I hate myself and I want to die/ Do you believe she said that?/ Can you believe she repeated that?/ I said, 'I hate me, myself and I.'"
Where a metal band might howl those same words until they become a gory threat, Marshall lets them hang in the haunted space of the song, in line with the long tradition of bone-chilling Americana murder ballads, this time turned inward against the self. Hardly the stuff of diamond ads.
Marshall is bringing her style to bear on another set of covers, set for release on Jan. 22, 2008 and titled Jukebox. No song list has been finalized, but given Marshall's past achievements, it promises to be exciting.
Let's just hope not too exciting.