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Cat Power

Under her pseudonym Cat Power, Chan Marshall has been enthralling and occasionally infuriating listeners since the mid '90s with her poignant, pensive, sometimes self-consciously fragile brand of Southern-accented nouveau folk blues. While her flightiness is a matter of record and in the past she has been known to alienate even diehard fans with astonishingly brief live sets, she also has a dusty aching croon that pierces the heart without even seeming to try, and an elegant minimalist approach to composition that draws intelligently and emotionally from some of the most potent musical traditions. In the span of just a half-dozen releases, Marshall has carved out a personal niche for herself equal to that of any of the seminal singer-songwriters of the '70s, building a musical legacy whose reverberations will be heard for years to come.

All this is still more remarkable when you consider that it wasn't Marshall's intention to become a musician, but rather something she happened into when she came to New York City and met some prominent members of the downtown music scene, including God Is My Co-Pilot and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Shelley and Tim Foljahn of Two Dollar Guitar offered to record with her and together the trio quickly produced a pair of stark, driving albums -- Dear Sir (1995) and Myra Lee (1996) -- that bore the imprimatur of folk, blues, country, and punk. Marshall really distinguished herself though with her first Matador album, What Would the Community Think, which featured gentler and more fleshed out arrangements and the kind of laconic phrasing, subtle tension, and offbeat melancholy for which she has since become known.

Chan Marshall fully delivered on the promise of Community two years later when she released her magnum opus Moon Pix, a true masterpiece of emotional shading and compositional clarity. Recorded in Australia with her friends from the Dirty Three, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White, the album continuously impresses with complex, deeply expressive arrangements that manage to be nostalgic, even sentimental, but still strikingly contemporary, without ever feeling contrived. From the heavy backwards drum loop of the plaintive opener, "American Flag," through the flute trills of "He Turns Down" and the raindrops of "Say," there's a boldness, a willingness to try all sorts of stylistic innovation without fear, that results in dazzling variation between songs even as the album overall feels satisfyingly cohesive. A big part of the cohesion comes thanks to Marshall's unique singing voice, which is sexy and resigned and rough all at once, an immense world of joy and hurt lying behind it like life beneath the surface of a lake.

While it wasn't the follow-up many ardent Moon Pix fans had hoped for, Marshall's 2000 release The Covers Album went another step further toward establishing her as one of America's preeminent lyrical talents. While in the past Marshall had demonstrated a unique ability to make just about anyone's song her own -- as with her angsty, martial cover on What Would the Community Think of "Bathysphere" by her sometime friend Bill Callahan of Smog, or her weary reading on Moon Pix of "Moonshiner," the traditional made popular by Bob Dylan -- here she dedicated an entire record to such endeavors. Starting with a desexualized, unmoored version of the Stones' "Satisfaction" that feels as alien and disorienting as walking on the moon, Marshall takes her listeners on a lovely though sometimes eerie journey through one woman's America, with covers of songs by Dylan, the Velvets, Nina Simone, Moby Grape, and others.

Marshall's sixth album, You Are Free, offered her first fresh material in nearly half a decade. Less musically consistent than the revelatory Moon Pix, it nonetheless found Marshall stretching as a singer and a songwriter in interesting ways, while offering occasional doses of lightness and hope in keeping with its title. Three years later, the Georgia native delivered her most Southern-inflected album to date, and perhaps her most sonically consistent, in The Greatest, recorded in a week with a group of Memphis soul veterans.