A step down from the platform of great female singers of exultation -- Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Beyonce -- and soon you encounter the sad slacker divas.
Chan Marshall, who records under the name Cat Power, and Beth Orton, are among the best. Both have similar-sounding, slouchy-beautiful, middle-range voices. Both are about 10 years into their careers. Each has an exceptional new album: The Greatest by Marshall (Matador Records), which comes out later this month, and Orton's Comfort of Strangers (Astralwerks), to be released Feb. 7. In both cases, the artists have changed bands, changed sounds and dropped some of their pretenses, though luckily for us, not all of them. In both cases, these albums are the best work of their lives.
Chan Marshall is the rare female pop singer who hides her own attractiveness. She has a large audience by the standards of indie rock, though no one could accuse her of being popular. Marshall started playing guitar at 19, formed Cat Power when she was 20, and in 1995, at 22, made an EP as a trio with the guitarist Tim Foljahn and Sonic Youth's drummer, Steve Shelley, called Dear Sir.
Hers was a hurt, disembodied, voice, operating on lulling frequencies over draggy tempos, like old Neil Young without the sense of direction. She sang about being all jammed up inside, about counterintuition, things adding up to nothing. (Consequently, she found a devoted audience among college-aged listeners.) She didn't convey defiance or rejuvenation or youthful suffering. She just sounded like she was blankly persevering.
Her songs seemed to ignore linear time. They could be beautiful for a minute, and then fall off the aesthetic grid, like music from some dim point in the future, after there had ceased to be any point in making music.
There is no shortage of anecdotes about disastrous Cat Power shows. At times she hasn't been able, or willing, to start or finish more than a couple of songs. She plays with her hair, tells feeble jokes and lapses into embarrassing silences. Finally, it all resembles a performance in front of a mirror in a child's bedroom, and last too long to seem accidental. At the end of one memorable show, she apologized, profusely and too contritely, as if the audience might form a line and personally forgive her.
Natural, manipulative, naked, pretentious; too much ego, or not enough; a beautiful voice that is at times ineptly handled; a complex series of beginnings that never got off the ground; the sense of being at least one paradigm ahead of the audience, and of being infantile at the same time: The logic at work gets revealed slowly.
It's a spectacularly difficult posture to keep interesting. But Marshall has grown. Her first full album, What Would the Community Think, was a brittle but workable blueprint. On Moon Pix, from 1998, her voice became more authoritative, and members of the Australian group the Dirty Three added a seasick sound. The Covers Record, all interpretations of other people's music, sounded monochromatic, but her song choices were not: Lou Reed, the swamp-pop anthem Sea of Love, the traditional folk songs Kingsport Town and Salty Dog.
By 2003, she was recording with actual rock stars (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Dave Grohl and Taylor Hawkins from Foo Fighters). The rhythm grew a little more controlled. But the songs remained stark and intractable; her records remained places where sloppiness and lethargy could be noble. She was floating in a world of no solutions, still waging a war against musical development and easy explication.