Cat Fight! Recent Female Singer/Songwriter Releases Compete for My Love

I know that art isn’t a competitive sport, but I can’t help but categorize, compare, and rank albums and artists. It must be the biologist in me—taxonomy is in my blood. So there’s my excuse for pitting against each other the four somewhat prominent solo female singer/songwriter albums that have been released in 2006 and seeing who wins:

Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers
Cat Power (Chan Marshall), The Greatest
Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Vocals
#1 Neko Case—Impeccable. By far the strongest and most verstaile vocal performance of the bunch. Her singing grabs you and doesn’t let go. You can’t help but listen and go where it takes you. One quibble I have is with the pervasive use of a strong reverb effect, which adds a layer of separation between singer and listener. I prefer to hear a good, powerful voice unfiltered.
#2 Chan Marshall—Soft. Sad. Evocative. Also able to carry some light R&B tunes surprisingly well. Sometimes her voice sounds so burdened that I wish she would just open her mouth and sing bright and clear. Oddly, it’s the same feeling I get listening to John Mayer.
#3 Beth Orton—Her voice is not pretty in the least. It is compelling and distinctive, though. My biggest complaint with her vocal performance on this album is that it isn’t very dynamic. She’s in the same range and at the same volume/intensity level for most of the album. It’s easy to let your attention drift.
#4 Jenny Lewis—A very pretty, dainty voice, but she sometimes lays on the affectations a bit thick. She has a tendency toward cloying preciousness that she indulges too often (see the title track).

Lyrics
If I have a strong suit in music analysis, it’s not lyrics. I do notice some things I like from Neko Case and some things I don’t like from Jenny Lewis (frequent phrasing problems (“bullSHIT canVAS”), didacticism, and weird posturing vis-a-vis religion). I haven’t formed an opinion on the other two.
#1 Neko Case
#2 (tie) Beth Orton
#2 (tie) Chan Marshall
#4 Jenny Lewis

Songs
#1 Neko Case—Unique, non-traditional structures win points with me any day.
#2 Beth Orton—Some very good, no-nonsense, interesting pop songs.
#3 Jenny Lewis—No complaints, really.
#4 Chan Marshall—Some good ones, some long, flat, static, boring ones.

Accompaniment
#1 Neko Case—A good, reverb-heavy match for the reverb-heavy vocals. Not content to just competently accompany, the band does a lot to make the songs work as well as they do. The slightly off-kilter, complex piano melody that weaves through “Margaret and Pauline” is one of several nice touches that make this album feel more like a band album than a singer/songwriter album. It’s to Case’s credit that she’s willing to share the stage with the music.
#2 Chan Marshall—Nothing too interesting happens here. Strings occasionally provide rich textures (sometimes too rich) and horns and the rhythm section bring some energy and movement to a few tunes.
#3 Beth Orton—Minimalist for the most part. Some good stuff, but nothing that really catches the ear.
#4 Jenny Lewis—Most of the time it’s standard country/folk instrumentation. But when she gets clever, like when a distorted, feedback-heavy electric guitar shows up, back in the mix, of the cutesy chorus of “Happy,” you just have to scratch your head. I’m just not feelin’ it, dawg.

Overall
#1 (by far) Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood
#2 (tie) Cat Power, The Greatest
#2 (tie) Beth Orton, Comfort of Strangers
#4 Jenny Lewis, Rabbit Fur Coat

Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine from last year might have given Fox Confessor a run for its money, but so far in 2006 Neko Case stands without rival.

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12 thoughts on “Cat Fight! Recent Female Singer/Songwriter Releases Compete for My Love

  1. Nice. I haven’t really heard any of these, although I do have at least one of them. Maybe two?

    I’m curious to hear the Beth Orton album. I’m pretty sure the only songs I really love by her are the ones produced or engineered by Ben Watt (of Everything But The Girl).

    Gonna post any to the radio.blog?

  2. Oh, I’m sorry, SuperG. I was under the impression that T-dome died around week 35 after three straight weeks of Zeppelin.

    I hope you can recover someday from that killer burn.

  3. I’m offended by the sexist title of this post!!! I’m also jealous, yet again, of the extensive musical knowledge of the kulturbloggers, and ashamed of my own un-hipness. I have heard of Fiona Apple, though.

  4. You really like the new Neko Case, huh Tom? She is one of those people (like Alison Krauss or Andrea Bocelli) who simply have an amazing “instrument” in their voices. I may have to pick it up.

    The Cat Power album hasn’t done much for me, but maybe I should give it another chance.

  5. I agree about Neko Case relying on reverb too much.

    I have the same problem with Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval. I used to absolutely love Mazzy Star, then I was listening to them one time on my mp3 player and I realized that every single Mazzy Star/Hope Sandoval song uses reverb/echo on the vocals and something snapped. I can no longer really enjoy the singing because now I notice it every time. It’s kind of sad, actually.

  6. Title tracks from each album are on the radio.blog.

    Elisabeth, I figured if there is a place to make an inappropriate, light-hearted, sexist statement and get away with it it’s Kulturblog. I guess I didn’t get away with it. I apologize deeply for any pain I might have caused you.

    [not]

    Yeah, Logan, Fox Confessor is really strong. Case’s voice is fantastic, but what makes it a solid album are the songs and the overall sound. I almost wish she would give the band a name since they’re such a presence. That might be a problem because it’s not necessarily a fixed group—some guys from Calexico contribute on some songs—but they really make the album more than just another singer/songwriter thing.

    I’m not too impressed with the Cat Power album either. I don’t know how well that came across in my post. I’m lukewarm on it. There are some songs that I really like, though.

    BTD Greg, My Morning Jacket is another example of overuse of reverb effects that I’ve noticed lately. I can forgive it in most instances, especially when the singer needs a little help to sound as big as the band, but sometimes I just want to hear a voice.

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