Chan Marshall opens her seventh Cat Power album with “The Greatest”, a tune awash in shimmery guitar, stately piano, soulful background vocals and swaying strings — the latter subtly nodding at “Moon River”. Coming from a such an indie-rock icon, it’s a startling intro, this Dusty In Memphis-type move. But Marshall’s always had a hint of Dusty Springfield in her: that slight raspiness lining the silky pipes, that hint of world-weary longing behind the ingenue facade. Not so coincidentally, this album was recorded in Memphis with a slew of studio vets, among them guitarist Teenie Hodges, bassist Flick Hodges, and horn players Jim Spake and Scott Thompson.
Marshall sounds like she’s enjoying the freedom that comes with stretching out stylistically, from the sassy soul swagger of “Living Proof” (listen for the chukka-chukka guitar and the way the horns and organ team up), to the R&B gallumph of “Could We”, to the sly fiddle shadings giving “Empty Shell” its countryish lilt, to the ’50s-dreamy, piano/strings ballad “Where Is My Love”. The Greatest feels real; it’s anything but tentative, always a risk when artists step outside their milieu.
Longtime Marshall watchers may miss the melancholic rock and claustrophobic folk of her earlier records (2003’s You Are Free even featured cameos from Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder). But for devotees to the ever-unfolding beauty of the female voice — not to mention those who like their icons served up with a side of surprise — The Greatest is one of the nicest gifts to fans in long time.