The second half of the 1990s was a productive period for Cat Power (Chan Marshall). She had released no music prior to 1995 but an eleven-month period saw her shoot out her first three albums: Dear Sir, Myra Lee and What Would The Community Think?, to cult adoration.
This trio saw her keeping grunge sentimentality afloat during its years of weary demise – gritty guitars, unhinged vocal delivery and minimalist production characterised a post-Cobain period that relied on nostalgia and unashamed ugliness in equal measure.
Myra Lee, which turned 25 years-old this month, was recorded entirely in the same sessions as her debut effort Dear Sir alongside Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. The album represents a further assertion of identity, rather than any artistic left turn, for Marshall.
The bulk of the songs consist of chugging distortion and oppressive soundscapes, particularly the early tracks ‘We All Die’ and ‘Great Expectations’, which paint an unforgivingly morose first impression of the album. Even more grooving compositions, like ‘Top Expert’, are still lyrically grounded in an afflicting pessimism and darkness (“In the light that I feel / I see crucifixes and expectancy”).
It is without doubt one of the most sobering albums of the 90s, something that Marshall would build upon for her hauntingly beautiful 1998 LP Moon Pix. Within Myra Lee are songs of the lonely and the lost, a post-adolescent haze of confusion and anxiety that search desperately for an escape.
At times, it could be too much. ‘Now What You Want’, the album’s closing act, is perhaps too far a step into inaccessibility. The track’s production doesn’t do itself any justice – Marshall finds herself in an uncomfortable battle for attention between her guitar and vocal discordance which derives an atmosphere that would make even the most hardened listener flinch. There’s a solid idea in the track, but it’s fleshed out with brutalism for brutalism’s sake rather than a more considered approach.
Where there is consideration, however, Myra Lee holds some of Marshall’s most endearing moments.
‘Still In Love’, a radical re-working of Hank Williams’ original nearly 50 years later, is one of the most affecting tracks of Marshall’s career and still stands the test of time today. ‘Still In Love’ exhibits the perfect balance between the previously mentioned grunge moodiness and idealistic romanticism.
With touches of distant guitar twangs and a signature atonal growl from Marshall perfectly placed in the latter stages of the track (“Heaven only knows how / Much I miss you”), ‘Still In Love’ would signal Marshall’s future forays into heartbreak and companionship that defined her career.
Make no mistake, Myra Lee is certainly a product of its time, a quintessentially ‘90s collection of post-grunge sludge. Unlike What Would The Community Think? or Moon Pix, it lacks a timelessness and emotional comprehension that epitomises why listeners reach out to Marshall’s discography in times of need. But as an album that solidified both Marshall’s sound and thematic approach to her later releases, Myra Lee was a crucial step.
It’s hard to find any albums of a similar personality, and perhaps this is what Myra Lee should be commended for most – a distinctly perfect expression of near-total alienation and separation.
Words by Jamie Bains
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