he reclamation of the American South has not been limited to hip-hop. An increasing number of artists—Frank Black and My Morning Jacket to name a couple—have recently tapped the region’s resources, from dated recording equipment to idle session warriors. These efforts have gone far beyond R.E.M. and Elephant Six’s Faulkner-ized mysticism, focusing less on the Dixie’s arcane, gothic romance and more on the enduring sonic memories the region birthed through the first half of the 20th century. Cat Power’s Chan Marshall is the latest student of the South, her musical ideology inching closer to her native Georgia since 1998’s Moon Pix. The Greatest, however, is the most fruitful and complete work to come from the underground’s recent fixation, an album of surprising compromise and lasting faith.
Recorded in a week with a group of Memphis session veterans—Mabon and Leroy Hodges among them—on The Greatest Marshall effectively receives her Southern inheritance: buoyant horn fills, mercury Telecaster leads, sawing violins. Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis is the obvious touchstone, but Springfield defied expectations by approaching Southern soul as a white, British diva. Marshall is a daughter of these sounds, and The Greatest sounds less like a reach for new sonic frontiers as the hazy underbelly of the folk-blues skeletons Marshall has been propping up for over a decade.
Springfield was famously too intimidated to sing in front of the legendary band she’d contracted; in contrast, Marshall sounds settled, if not completely comfortable, in front of Hodges and company, her sparse piano chords allowing the band ample room to mold their infallible country-soul. Infallible, and inspiring: the true value in The Greatest lies in the way the band consistently shifts Marshall just slightly out of her comfort zone, forcing her to maneuver tempos, textures, and themes foreign to her work.
This is crucial. Marshall has been predisposed to drifting on past albums, fueled in no small part by her singular and often isolated sonic palette. She is afforded no such luxury on the spry, swinging “Could We,” arguably as bright as Marshall has ever sounded. “Islands” features a familiar melancholy, but the song’s Hawaiian pedal steel intro coerces Marshall to adapt. And adapt she does, transforming a too-familiar pining into high personal drama, singing, “I don’t want no heavy diamonds / And pearls crush my teeth / I just want my sailor / to sail back to me.” Marshall’s fusion of potentially banal sentimentality with desperate, empathetic expression is a constant throughout The Greatest, her newfound economy of image one of the album’s subtle surprises.
The interaction between Marshall’s idiosyncratic songwriting and her band’s traditional ethos manifests fully in “Willie,” a rewrite of Speaking for Tree’s marathon narrative. A lonely horn wonks in the background as Marshall’s coo stirs with an insistent grand piano and cagey guitar chords. Words appear only in spurts: “Second time was through the heart…Willie had a job to do…Please don’t bring him down…He’s on the same side as you.” It is the album’s sonic centerpiece, its sighing majesty the place setter for the blue simplicity of “Where Is My Love,” the wayward “The Moon,” and the Crazy Horse-lite closer “Love and Communication.”
The Greatest isn’t perfect, but its stumbles are neither intrusive nor damning: “Hate” feels reductive, especially at the end of the album, and “Empty Shell” languishes anonymously. But Marshall’s tendency to coast is severed here, a combination of a restless, joyous band and a refreshingly brief twelve-song cycle. It’s important to note that Marshall’s collaboration is no academic exploration, nor is it cut-and-paste revisionism. These songs were born for their arrangements, Marshall’s songwriting tailored for her veteran band the way their tested measures were for her strident, smoky husk.
During the second verse of “Lived in Bars,” Marshall asks “Who’s gonna play drums, guitar, and organ with chorus?” right before the melody goes double-time to keep pace with the newly vibrant brass section, her question answered with a grin. The moment is a miniature of The Greatest’s triumph: Hodges and company humor Marshall for stretches, subtly adding atmosphere and rhythm before forcing her to a higher plane. Marshall’s walking in some tall cotton here, shambling heartily through the South, the blessings of its musical patriarchs clutched proudly in her palm.