Cat Power’s new You Are Free (Matador) may be about liberation, as the title suggests, but not in any positive sense of the word. In song after song Chan Marshall’s characters quit, hide, run, or just fade away rather than struggle to fix their situations and find real peace of mind. The album opens with “I Don’t Blame You,” a song about a tortured rocker (possibly Kurt Cobain) with whom Marshall solemnly empathizes. One narrator feels that she needs to leave her man to become a “good woman,” while in “Names” Marshall catalogs a jumble of childhood friends–victims of parental, sexual, and drug abuse–who have vanished from her life. It’s bleak stuff, and Marshall’s tentative delivery reinforces the chronic passivity and negativity of her characters, but her melodic gift helps the darkness go down a bit easier. Marshall’s cracked, dusky voice makes her seem constantly on the verge of breaking down, and that teetering quality infuses her music with urgency. On most of the songs her simple guitar and piano parts, as well as her superb multitracked vocal harmonies, give the music a majestic resonance, and a handful of guest musicians adds some firepower: the sobbing violin of the Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis reinforces Marshall’s cry on “Good Woman,” Dave Grohl provides the propulsion on “Speak for Me,” and Eddie Vedder joins Marshall in the haunting, half-whispered duet “Evolution.” Marshall performs with a quartet on Saturday, and Sunday she plays solo; reports from earlier shows on this tour suggest that she remains erratic onstage and still has trouble completing even one song. Saturday, March 8, 10 PM, and Sunday, March 9, 9 PM, Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace; 773-478-4408.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stefano Giovanni.