Cat Power chanteuse Chan Marshall soaks up Memphis soul on her new album, “The Greatest,” due this week via Matador. The 12-track set was recorded in three days at the city’s Ardent Studios and produced by Stuart Sikes, who previously worked with Marshall on her 1996 album “What Would the Community Think.”
The artist is surrounded on the set by a who’s-who of Memphis session veterans, led by Al Green guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, who plays guitar on all but three tunes. Among the other contributors are bassists Leroy Hodges and David Smith, guitarist Doug Easley, keyboardist Rick Steff, saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson.
Marshall had been playing some of these songs live before the sessions, but as Sikes says, “I don’t think she had any idea how they were going to turn out. When they got to the studio, she played them the song and they charted it out and then just played it. Most of it was done by the first, second or third take.”
And while Marshall has become notorious for her erratic live performances and shy demeanor, Sikes says the musicians quickly set her at ease. “The first day, I know she was pretty nervous walking into a room full of these guys who have been on a gazillion records,” he says. “But all those guys are amazingly nice. All they wanted was to make her comfortable.”
“The Greatest” is highlighted by such jaunty soul-infused tracks as “Could We” and the organ-tinged first single “Living Proof” and emotional numbers with a country bent like “Lived in Bars” and “Empty Shell” (sample lyric: “All that’s left of my heart is an empty shell / it’s crushed”). The songs “Where Is My Love” and “Hate” return Marshall to the ultra-sparse musical backdrops of her early work; the first a drum-less lament with piano and strings and the latter featuring just Marshall and a repeated three-chord electric guitar figure.