Indie kids spend a fair amount of time bragging about how much more challenging and difficult to understand our music is than the mainstream. This attitude has been deconstructed and ridiculed for good reason, but I think many people are being genuine when they say that they crave music that will expand and challenge their tastes. So, I figured I’d start an occasional series on artists and albums that I’ve personally struggled to understand but have come to truly enjoy. You may find these artists easier to digest than I first did, depending on your tastes, but what I really hope is that you find them as rewarding as I have come to find them.
For this inaugural entry, I want to introduce you to Cat Power, a folk, blues and alternative musician who enjoyed serious critical acclaim in the 90s and 2000s but has befuddled the public at large. When I first heard Cat Power, I found her music unpleasant, challenging and inscrutable, and moved on without giving her a second thought. However, you can probably relate to the experience of having a certain album or musician you didn’t immediately like just stick in your brain. Power did this to me, and I’ve found myself returning to her music at regular intervals, each time liking it a little more than the last.
Cat Power was originally championed by Steve Shelley of the Sonic Youth, who produced and appeared on her first couple of albums. This was at a time when every Sonic Youth member was championing a new alternative act. However, the other two artists who got major label contracts this way, Nirvana and Hole, became big accessible pop acts, and none of those three adjectives would ever be applied to Power. Her music is rooted in blues and folk, following the long tradition of rock musicians who retained an interest in the original cultural context of rock and roll. She prefers a lot of covers, playing songs from the American Folk repertoire, early country greats like the Carter Family and Hank Williams, and obscure folk revival artists like Michael Hurley. However, Power stays true to blues in a way that the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan never did, she retains the somber, morbid, depressive atmosphere that dominated the blues, interpreting through the angsty and pained lens of alternative rock. On paper, her sound isn’t that far away from Sheryl Crow or Melissa Ethridge, but her music is pained in such an understated yet sincere way that I actually had to turn it off while writing this article because I couldn’t focus.
As she progressed, Power would become more accessible, relatively speaking. Her first solo album “Myra Lee” is so stripped bare and distorted that the blues-rock core is almost indiscernible. Her second album “What Would the Community Think,” is a lot more comprehensible, and her masterpiece “Moon Pix,” almost resembles an album you might listen to for pleasure. These three albums are the core of her discography, but for starters, I might recommend her less innovative but more accessible work in the 2000s such as “You Are Free,” or her covers record.
When recreational listening takes this much effort, there has to be a considerable payoff, and for Cat Power, that payoff comes in the wistful emotional space her music occupies. There’s something deeply beautiful at the bottom of Power’s depressive emotional space, and indie rock’s obsession with mental health as subject matter can be partially attributed to Power. Artists from Phoebe Bridgers to Billie Eilish owe her a debt, and the better part of 20 years of folksy lyrical indie rockers have tried to recapture and build upon what she accomplished. Give it a shot if you want a rewarding but unforgiving listening experience.