In only a few years, Chan Marshall has recorded several albums, collected an impressive retinue of admirers ranging from Nylon to the New Yorker, and become a magnet for both critical adoration and the uncritical wet dreams of indie boys and girls. Performing as Cat Power, she's a starry-eyed shaman who sings with near-feral frankness about childhood horrors, existential anxiety, emancipation from the doldrums of ordinary life and, of course, sweet romance. Her guileless honesty emerges not only in her songs but also in her off-kilter live shows, in which she's been known to indulge in unpredictable crying bouts and flights from the stage. And her reluctance to acknowledge her own power makes her all the more appealing.
Marshall's roughly hewn songs are more awkward than the average rock fan is prepared to deal with—like Tori Amos, one could call her lyrics either staggeringly complex or numbly simple, such as in the song "Free" (a track from most recent album You Are Free), a haunting recounting of Marshall's grade-school friends and the abuses they experienced. It's like fellow southerner William Faulkner's boy protagonist Ike McCaslin, who coolly documents the various social misdeeds of his family, only to later pounce on them unexpectedly; Marshall's detached expositions of tragedies and triumphs curl gently but firmly around the listener's neck.
But still, she's got a one-two punch of accessibility and inspiration—like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart, Marshall has entered the realm of Amazon-sold popular music with completely challenging records that keep her too mobile for any specific niche. Guesting on Handsome Boy Modeling School's newest and most hilariously sexy album, White People, Marshall delivered "I've Been Thinking," easily the hottest track of the lot. Last October, the much-anticipated live Cat Power DVD Speaking for Trees was released; in typical Chan Marshall fashion, it's one uninterrupted shot of Cat Power singing and playing electric guitar in the woods. But despite the bizarre elements of past live shows, Marshall's performances are musically illuminating; what she lacks in instrumentation she compensates for with a melancholy voice and her own inborn sensibility, which despite everything is still that of someone who scoots around in the sun-warmed Georgia dirt.
Cat Power with Richard Swift at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Tues., 9 p.m. $12. 21+.
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