Moon Pix

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

"My magic friend ... her magic heart feels everything," sings Cat Power, aka Chan Marshall, on "American Flag," the first track off her spellbinding album Moon Pix. She could be singing about herself: Listening to Moon Pix, you can't help but feel that Marshall possesses a copy of the key to your secret self, the one glimpsed only in the most unnerving of your dreams. It makes perfect sense that Marshall wrote six of the tracks on Moon Pix over one long night, as she tried to keep sleep -- and recurring voodoo nightmares, no kidding -- at bay.

It's hard, maybe impossible, to pinpoint the source of the album's hypnotic power. There's Marshall's voice, equal parts wearied rasp and honeyed drawl, drawn over melodies delicate as filaments. There's the off-kilter, paradoxically lush-yet-spare backing instrumentation -- recognizably provided by two-thirds of Australia's Dirty Three. There's the languorous songs themselves, of course, sad and laced with traces of menace and salvation. And Marshall's lyrics work like an incantation, only loosely coherent, but freighted with meaning: "Big monster/big monster lover/bigger pusher over" begins "Back of Your Head"; the song climaxes with the lines "Couldn't park that fucking car/couldn't part from you/Saw the back of your sweet mother's head/now I know that she thinks I'm dead."

Perhaps -- but only perhaps -- the album's most poignant moment is on "Metal Heart," one of the three tracks that form its core -- "Say" and "Back of Your Head" bookend the sequence. Acoustic guitar and a sedate beat weave around Marshall's particularly dusky vocals, which rise to a quotation from "Amazing Grace" -- "I once was lost/but now I'm found/was blind but now I see" -- then fall to the lines "How selfish of you/to believe in the meaning of all the bad dreams."