Give these femme fatale frontwomen a taste test

Frontwomen Cat Power and Jenny Lewis experiment with soul in their new albums

by Keri Carlson

From Nico to Liz Phair to PJ Harvey, indie rock has a long-running love affair with the femme fatale frontwoman. She is not only beautiful, but also tragic and untamable; she boldly sings of her Aphrodite powers, but isn’t afraid to let her mascara run every now and then.

Both Chan Marshall of Cat Power and Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley continue the tradition of the indie rock goddess ” a tradition that could easily be translated to a film noir. Marshall matches dark brunette features with a sultry low whisper. Lewis has more of a cute and innocent charm; she wears her red hair long, sports vintage dresses and hangs out with Conor Oberst.

On Cat Power’s last record “You Are Free,” she sings, “I want to be a good woman / and I want for you to be a good man / this is why I will be leaving / this is why I can’t see you no more.” And on Rilo Kiley’s last record, “More Adventurous,” Lewis sings a similar warning of, “Baby, I’m bad news.”

Besides a praying mantis, nihilistic sexiness, Marshall and Lewis now share another similarity. For Cat Power’s newest release Marshall went down to Memphis, Tenn., for some Al Green-esque soul, full of smoky organs and weeping symphonies. For Lewis’ first solo record, she headed south as well, getting the help of Kentucky gospel duo the Watson Twins.

Cat Power’s “The Greatest” and Lewis’ “Rabbit Fur Coat” definitely fall into the white-soul category ” not in a cheesy Hall and Oats way, but more in the vein of the Flying Burrito Brothers ” for music is not strictly Southern or soul. Country twangs and alt rock heaves as well.

Marshall and Lewis can adapt into these new territories mainly because they are not that unfamiliar. Cat Power has always had a Dusty Springfield soulfulness to her voice. Rilo Kiley dabbles in alt rock. But because Marshall’s vocals carry more pain and her lyrics bear more failures and heartbreak, it is clear that Marshall fits more comfortably into classic soul.

Lewis spends much of her album questioning religion and the existence of a God ” which offsets the gospel backing. At times this creates an irony that only enhances the image of Lewis as tragic heroine. But at other times, Lewis’ adorable rather than mysterious voice makes “Rabbit Fur Coat” sound goofy and jokelike, rather than natural.

While both records are gorgeous (Cat Power’s more so), neither are Marshall’s or Lewis’ best or most compelling work. Ultimately, both records seem like experiments, like trying out a new restaurant for kicks. It’s a new flavor for both women, and it certainly tastes good, but it will never take the place of their home-cooked meals.