The other catwoman

Anne Broache

Listen carefully to Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power. Mistake her mellow vocals for melancholy musings and you might overlook genuinely positive advice that rivals self-help literature. Lines like, “Hide from who you can, you know you can,” or “It’s your right, come on and take a chance,” could show up in any one of the “Who Moved My Cheese?” books. Consistent with her new album’s encouraging title, You Are Free, the indie-rock songbird wants you to break away.

The album marks Marshall’s first original songs since the quietly acclaimed Moon Pix in 1998. This time, the Georgia-born singer-songwriter remains partial to the pithy lyrics and sparse instrumentals that lullabied her listeners before, but she’s not stagnating. Proof of her artistic growth lies in the denser songs that punctuate this 14-cut release, mixed by Adam Kasper of Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam fame.

Matador Records, Marshall’s New York-based label, says she “exists on a plane somewhat different than yours or mine,” and they may be right. Even her first name — Chan, pronounced “Shawn” — indicates quirkiness. Compared with female singer-songwriter contemporaries, Marshall is neither as rock ‘n’ roll as Sheryl Crow nor as ethereal as Tori Amos. She is an artist who managed to subdue the Rolling Stones’ ranting “Satisfaction” to open her 2000 The Covers Record.

You Are Free begins modestly with “I Don’t Blame You,” in which a series of walking-tempo, middle-range piano chords provide the only accompaniment for Marshall’s easygoing vocals. Reliance on piano surfaces repeatedly, notably on “Maybe Not,” a bittersweet, well-crafted melody that finds Marshall crooning octaves higher and harmonizing with her own overlaid voice.