Two of my favorite artists have returned from obscurity with some of their best material in over a decade; and a fresher face, who's released her third album in three years back in February, fills out the trio of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the year (so far). The two veterans--Fiona Apple and Cat Power's Chan Marshall--are both coming off long breaks. Marshall will be releasing Sun, her first batch of new songs in over six years, in September, while Apple, who has remained relatively silent for the last seven years, released her fourth album, The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do, last week.
The hype surrounding Apple's release is well-deserved: she's one of the most interesting songwriters around, she has a distinct and beautiful voice, and this is her strongest collection of material to date. She's also maintained her weirdness, still balancing somewhere in between the jazz lounge and the psych ward. Among the many features and interviews that have accompanied her return to the spotlight, this lengthy piece from New York Magazine's culture section is a moving account of Apple's current batch of neuroses and her ambiguous development as a young, MTV-approved sex-symbol to uncompromising, reclusive genius.
When it comes to style and delivery, Cat Power's Chan Marshall is less resistant than Apple to change and experimentation. 2006's The Greatest was Marshall's attempt to ground herself in Memphis style R&B, eschewing the folk-rock moniker for something a more polished and traditional. The results were mixed and surprisingly uninspired (given the list of "greats" she was working with), especially when it came to her songwriting. Still something of a crossover success, The Greatest did prove to be her most successful album, but, for me at least, it fell far short of her previous classics, 1998's Moon Pix and 2003's You Are Free. Since then she's released a similarly stylized album of covers (2008's Jukebox), split with her hubby, had her house foreclosed, and has ditched her guitar-based songwriting for something fresher. "Ruin," the first single off Sun (featured below), is bold and upbeat, while the recently leaked "Cherokee" begins with a more familiar wash of piano and guitar before a driving hip-hop beat takes over, turning Marshall's broken-hearted confession into an anthemic ode to the sky.
If Cat Power has ditched Marshall's folk-rock approach, Sharon Van Etten gives it new life on Tramp, her third and best album to date. Like Marshall and Apple, Van Etten is an introspective songwriter with a meek but captivating vocal delivery. After three strong efforts, and some help from her high-profile pals (from Beirut's Zach Condon to Shearwater to fellow Brooklyners TV on the Radio), Van Etten has become one of the most consistent young singer-songwriters around. She's a bit on the mopey side, but so are the best of them.