Music: Cat Power and Beth Orton

Cat Power The Greatest Matador
Music ••• Sound ••••
Beth Orton Comfort of Strangers Astralwerks
Music •••½ Sound ••••
Singer Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power, always sounds like an overheard murmur - a sigh descending into melancholia. Now comes her new studio album, The Greatest, and she has made her most accessible record yet - not by changing her vocal style but by coming up with 12 relatively focused songs that, recorded with Memphis studio veterans, occasionally sound positively poppish. Within these often tight, even hooky melodies, Marshall's poetically doleful lyrics are given a little more earthy heft than usual. Of course, her longtime fans may not appreciate that. And if The Greatest can be heard as a Southern soul session, her voice is just too small to be conventionally soulful - though it's a compelling sound that slowly worms it way under your skin.

For Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton has moved in the opposite direction by stripping down her songs, tossing out the slick strings and electronic gloss of her previous albums for the more organic sound of piano and acoustic guitar. This emphasizes her strong point - namely, her slightly prolix but appealingly subtle lyrics, examining the intricacies of love and loss. Unlike Marshall, Orton comes across as confidently assertive, with her serviceable voice and generally upbeat melodies, and her impact is both more immediate and pleasurable enough to inspire repeated listenings.