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Cat Power's nervous introvert breaks out.

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You Are Free

Cat Power

(Matador)

On past albums, Cat Power's sole member, Chan Marshall, played the role of the girl who sits at the back of class and is too timid to raise her hand and give the answers she obviously knows. She was eccentric, introverted, nervous, and very nearly brilliant. If her primary flaw was her unwillingness to assert herself, on her new album, the meaningfully titled You Are Free, she sells herself as a major singer-songwriter with more facets than shy and skittish.

You Are Free widens and develops Marshall's sound beyond the stark intimacy of voice and minimal accompaniment. A slow, sad electric-guitar riff illuminates the country-bluesy "Good Woman," while a chorus of background singers -- including Eddie Vedder and two girls named Maggie and Emma, ages 10 and 11 -- play male and female devils and angels on Marshall's shoulders. Other songs feature odd string arrangements from David Campbell (Beck's dad) and violin from the Dirty Three's Warren Ellis. The result is a piercing, ramshackle sound that is dynamic enough to volley confidently from the ghostly folk of "Werewolf" to the crunchy alt-rock of "He War."

She still communicates painful, scary intimacy better than just about anyone else (other than, say, Lucinda Williams). On "Werewolf," the verses disintegrate into a wordless chorus of soft whoops and ee-ahs that conjure an otherworldly eeriness, while on "Names," her voice takes on the scars of a thousand tragedies as she catches up with her teenage friends who've lived rough, ill-fated lives.

Marshall has developed her songwriting voice; she has also honed her physical voice considerably. She projects a wide range of emotions through the sheer raspiness of her vocals and the rhythms of her phrasings. At times, she sounds like a more nuanced PJ Harvey but without the bull-in-a-china-shop wail that Polly Jean passes off as feminine sexuality. On "I Don't Blame You," the type of rock-and-roll metasong that would fit perfectly on a Sleater-Kinney album, she sounds self-assured and confident as she deconstructs her own tortured stage persona, while on "He War" she sings "I'm not that hot new chick!" with punk-cool attitude.

In other words, You Are Free may be Marshall's fourth album, but it's her first to approach greatness. It should lift her out of the indie arena she has been haunting for years and drag her into the national spotlight, a development that Marshall will probably still view with some reluctance and that everyone else will applaud. --Stephen Deusner

Grade: A

Lovebox

Groove Armada

(Jive Electro)

When rave came along, it was celebrated because it was the antithesis of classic rock. Now it is classic rock and often very self-consciously so. See the last couple of Chemical Brothers albums or Fatboy Slim's Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars. And now add the new Groove Armada to that list. Londoners Andy Cato and Tom Findlay broke through with 1999's Vertigo, in particular when Fatboy Slim's remix added some badly needed funk to their single "I See You Baby," giving the duo a massive club hit. But Vertigo itself was often watery -- sometimes to great effect ("At the River"), usually not. Something similar applied to 2001's Goodbye Country, Hello Nightclub. It's with Lovebox, though, that Cato and Findlay make their classic-rock move.

This isn't to say that the album sounds all that different from their earlier work. It's just that these arena-rave tricks (bludgeoning drumbeats, enormous basslines, a thick overall sonic ambience) have become so expected that it's hard to be thrilled by them anymore. Also, for dance artists and listeners, disco has now become part of the classic-rock canon, so disco drumbeats and diva wailing signify in much the same way as the guitar solo or the sneering/leering British male vocalist does. Lovebox has a little of all those elements, as well as the Jamaican sounds that have long been prevalent in U.K. dance culture. The way Cato and Findlay deploy them is appealing in a holding-pattern kind of way: The album is both more self-consciously funky than usual but also looser, all without feeling very notable in the end. -- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade: B

Wonderful Rainbow

Lightning Bolt

(Load Records)

Just when you thought a bass/drums noise duo that play through 3,800 watts of unmic'd power couldn't sell 30,000 albums, along come Providence, Rhode Island's Lightning Bolt. I know, nobody has really ever pondered that, but Lightning Bolt have developed into a minor phenomenon. Up until Wonderful Rainbow, their third full-length, Lightning Bolt albums have been little more than dressing for the live experience. Said experience starts with two guys quietly setting up gear in a corner of a club (usually opposite the stage), then the second the opening band concludes their set, Lightning Bolt commence to cleaning the ears of every patron sporting the berries to stick around.

Brian Chippendale plays like the future of our world depends on how hard he hits the kit, and Brian Gibson looks like he'd rather be making lunch as he picks his instrument (which is strung with three bass strings and a banjo string), but what comes out of the latter's 10-foot stack will have you second-guessing any preconceived idea of "intensity." Sonic Youth were wowed enough to invite Lightning Bolt to play a handful of high-profile gigs and tried to coerce the duo into playing last. Seems the experienced veterans had some trepidation about following the live act of the new millennium -- a live act that has rounded up quite a drove of believers, as is evident by album sales previously unheard-of within the realm of discordant noise so far removed from pop or rock standards.

So what do you get out of the new record? You get a conspicuous branching out from prior albums. Long passages of, dare I say, hypnotic bass noodlings (don't get the idea that we're talking Jaco Pastorius here) provide a pretty cohesion between the times when the guys lock into their rhythmic romper room. Too few notes (and even less fidelity) to be prog-rock- or metal-based, the dominating sound is a more pedestrian, driving take on Japan's Ruins or early Boredoms. The sparse vocals are delivered through a talk-show lapel mic fixed inside the drummer's ski mask, and they come out through the bass amp, so don't expect an intelligible sing-along to the bouncy, nursery-rhyme yelps. For a convincing visual document, last fall's VHS/DVD The Power of Salad lovingly follows Lightning Bolt on a cross-country tour and is available through the label. Become a believer. -- Andrew Earles

Grade: B+

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