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Stray cat

Mabon “Teenie” Hodges is one of the great sidemen in the history of soul music. As a Hi Records guitarist in the 1970s, he brought both a jazzy elegance and a funky grit to the classic records of Al Green, and co-wrote R&B milestones such as “Here I Am (Come and Take Me)” and “Love and Happiness” (for the former, basing the modal verses on Indian ragas he was listening to at the time).

Hodges and his Memphis soul compatriots are all over The Greatest, the new album by enigmatic indie chanteuse Chan Marshall (better known as Cat Power), but there’s no danger of confusing any of these tracks with an old Ann Peebles obscurity. Marshall’s vocals tend to be husky mumbles and even her most uplifting songs are muted and lugubrious, but she possesses the kind of authority shared by all great originals: She pulls you into her world, rather than leaving hers to connect with you. So even though she trekked to Memphis to make The Greatest, Hodges and Co. clearly did the stylistic traveling at these sessions.

The Greatest
Cat Power

On a subtle (at times subliminal) level, however, the Southern soul trappings of the album loosen up Marshall just enough to help her find a gospel groove (the steady rocking “Living Proof”) or a hint of Stax funk (the horn-driven “Could We”). For “Lived in Bars,” she shakes off the song’s existential hangover (“There’s nothing like living in a bottle”) for the final verse, kicking into a warm doo-wop pastiche that transcends, but does not deny, the dead-end nature of the life she depicts.

Marshall’s voice is such a haunting instrument it has carried even her lesser songs over the years. No such heavy lifting is necessary for The Greatest, because these simple, evocative tunes consistently measure up. Combined with her ultra-sexy vocal on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s 2004 track “I’ve Been Thinking,” her Memphis venture suggests that Marshall’s musical universe, constricted though it may be, is still in the process of expanding.

Gilbert Garcia

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