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Cat Power 

Burn, baby, burn

It's almost an identical 1,100 miles from the Ardent Studios in Memphis, TN, where Cat Power (a.k.a. Chan Marshall) recorded her latest, The Greatest (Matador), to two cities Marshall now calls home, New York and Miami. It's a handy bit of symmetry. For until The Greatest, Marshall has always straddled the Mason/Dixon sonic line.

Over six previous full-lengths, Marshall's hewn as much to New York folk and punk aesthetics as to the lonesome blues coursing through her fragile, forlorn tales. And this is The Greatest's riskiest conceit: overhauling Marshall's sound to more fully embrace her Southern music roots without losing her wraith-like presence. With that in mind, Marshall hired some of Memphis' heaviest hitters -- including Al Green's Hi Rhythm backing band -- to add slinky guitar grooves, Stax-horn blasts, doo-wop harmonies and lush strings, particularly on "Living Proof," "Could We," and the Patsy Cline ode "After It All."

Elsewhere, the accents are scaled back. The fiddle-driven country shuffle "Empty Shell" is vintage heartbroken Marshall. "Where Is My Love?" is a piano-and-strings dirge that aches with raw yearning, and "Hate" is just Marshall and electric guitar channeling Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain. "I hate myself and I want to die," Marshall sings.

The most intriguing cuts mix both new and familiar elements seamlessly. The wistful title cut about a once-promising fighter features rich strings, hearty guitar reverb and angelic harmonies cocooning Marshall's melancholic piano vamps; "Lived in Bars" begins as a sax-accompanied piano shuffle before tempo-changing into a shimmying, horn-driven outro; the sinister march "Love & Communication" ends the record with an accusatory flourish, a wary woman's update on the Green staple, "Love & Happiness." But throughout, Marshall's delicate, smoky whisper and intuitive phrasing remain center stage. Having made a strength of vulnerability, it's comforting to hear that Cat Power remains vital no matter the setting.

Online: www.matadorrecords.com/cat_power/music.html

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