There are times when I truly believe punk rock was the worst thing to ever happen to rock & roll. Most of the time it's while listening to cookie-cutter emo bands grind out the same old tired chords while singing in their self-infatuated whine. But it also occurs to me when I'm listening to indie rock artists who seem to be championed because they play their own instruments, have learned a new chord and have enlisted the help of a name producer who gives their untutored "genius" a new dimension. How low have we sunk when we're excited that a musician plays an instrument?
Jandek is one thing. Here was a man who spent a decade making records on which he didn't even tune his guitar. When he finally discovered an open tuning and played a chord after more than 10 albums, well, that was an event, performance art taken to a worthy extreme. But so much else out there is simply incompetent. And while it's easy to understand why someone like Lester Bangs wanted to tear down the barrier between artist and audience and let rock & roll be a true music of the people, I think after all these years of out-of-tune guitars and coyly detached vocals, he would rethink his position.
Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is hardly the worst offender. Over the years she's recorded moments worth remembering ("Metal Heart" and "Colors and the Kids" from Moon Pix being standouts), but somewhere along the line she found a piano, and the result has been a storm of elliptical phrases with no idea how to get beyond A to B.
The Greatest is being lauded for having been recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn., with legendary musicians Mabon "Teenie" Hodges and Leroy "Flick" Hodges, guitarist and bassist who worked with Al Green in the late '60s/early '70s. But while their accompaniment works over "Love and Communication" and "The Moon" to a sufficient buzz, they can't work miracles; the lethargic rhythm of "Living Proof," "Lived in Bars" and "Could We" cannot be kicked out of low gear.
Marshall simply doesn't have the range to transcend monochromatic melancholy. Marianne Faithfull worked similar terrain in the mid-'70s before she cracked her voice wide open on the jagged edge of new wave with Broken English, and it's Faithfull's mid-'70s country stylings that Marshall most reflects. ("After It All" sounds like something left off Faithless.) What we've got here is a seriously limited singer-songwriter damned by her limitations, yet equally convinced that those limitations are in no way restrictive. And that is a truly sad proposition.