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The Greatest

Cat Power

(Matador)

With a dose of Memphis soul,

an indie songwriter makes her old sound new again.

In 2005, Chan Marshall recorded The Greatest, her seventh record as Cat Power, in town at Ardent Studios. She recruited an impressive roster of local musicians that included Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and Leroy "Flick" Hodges of Al Green's Hi Rhythm Section, among others. However, unlike other artists who've made local records -- John Hiatt and actor/eyebrow cultivator Peter Gallagher, to name two recent examples -- Marshall is no mere tourist in Memphis, nor has she made a nostalgia record. The Greatest features her typically accomplished guitar work, artfully rudimentary piano playing, and deeply questioning and compassionate songwriting. In other words, it sounds recognizably like a Cat Power record but with a much richer sound, greater scope, and flashes of sophisticated horns.

However, in this new setting, Marshall's vocals sound more soulful and assured, which is no real surprise. On "I've Been Thinking," her 2004 collaboration with Handsome Boy Modeling School, she showed a surprising new side, eschewing her usual folksy wallflower vocals for a low, smoky coo. The Greatest lives up to that track's considerable promise, showcasing a singer still finding new ways to use her instrument. Marshall layers her backing vocals throughout the album, chanting the title on "The Greatest" like a Greek chorus and adding doo-wop filigrees to "After It All."

This performance is matched by songwriting that flirts with autobiography through a veil of metaphor and insinuation. The title track recasts her as a pugilist, but the violence and hostility, not to mention the push-and-pull between indefatigable hopes and dashed expectations, are definitely applicable to her music career, which has been tugged along by her brittle persona and famously awkward live shows. She briefly addresses this aspect of her reputation on "Willie." Over her ace backing band, she examines pop music's primary subject matter -- romance -- and delves into what inspires her music and sanity, namely generous friends and lovers. We've come to expect this type of deeply personal, slyly coded song from Cat Power, but she still finds ways to make it sound new. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: A-

Look for more on Cat Power's Memphis-based band in next week's Flyer.

The Moon Was Blue

Bobby Bare

(Dualtone)

Bobby Bare boomerangs back after a 20-year retirement for a standards album that's nobody's idea of standard and crazy great. Bare scored Nashville hits from the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s but is probably best known now as father to rocker Bobby Bare Jr., who co-produced this album. Filled with songs Bare always wanted to record, The Moon Was Blue pairs known quantities ("Shine on Harvest Moon" and "Everybody's Talkin'") with out-of-left-field choices (Shel Silverstein's heartbreaking "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan"). Bare's heavy baritone anchors tunes that sometimes threaten to float away on quirky instrumentation. No matter. Once this sinks into your skin, you're likely to follow Bare anywhere he cares to roam. ("Are You Sincere," "Everybody's Talkin'," "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan") -- Werner Trieschmann

Grade: A-

Healthy White Baby

Healthy White Baby

(Broadmoor)

Taking its name from a line from Raising Arizona, Chicago-based Healthy White Baby is Laurie Stirratt and Danny Black's new band, their first following the break-ups of Blue Mountain and the Blacks. This debut, released on Stirratt's Broadmoor label, is no-frills country-blues-rock that makes a virtue out of a lack of ambition or pretension. But the band shows just how durable that equation is with songs like "Look You in the Eyes" and "I Was Trying" aiming for the gut. Stirratt and Ryan Juravic form a tight rhythm section, but the band's real vigor lies in Black's guitar and surprisingly catchy, pop-song melodies. ("Soul," "It's Over," "Home")

-- SD

Grade: B+

Healthy White Baby plays Proud Larry's in Oxford Saturday, February 4th. Showtime is 10 p.m.; cover is $8.

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