2009 / Music

Review: St. Vincent’s ‘Actor’ Commands Center Stage

Indie-Rock Siren Offers Up Second Disc

Getting noticed remains the central challenge for any up-and-coming musician. This is a particular weak point for former sidemen, who either by inclination or a boss’ command, are typically shy away from the spotlight.

Photo: 4AD

Photo: 4AD

For St. Vincent, the stage name of Brooklynite and erstwhile Okie musician Annie Clark, stepping out as an alter ego could be viewed not only as a nifty way to brand her solo output, but also a mechanism to divorce herself from her past stints as an indie-rock axe-for-hire.

More than her pseudonym’s pull on the blogosphere though, it’s Clark’s new album, “Actor,” that is the breakthrough that will establish her and make her name renowned among the musical intelligentsia. It’s the culmination of everything the 26-year-old has been working toward during her years stuck in the shadows. No one will mistake her as an onstage accessory again.

Up until “Actor,” Clark’s name in music circles was mostly identified as a supporting player even though she released a debut album in 2007. While she landed previous gigs as a backing musician for the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens in recent years, it was a New York Times Magazine profile last year she shared with indie auteurs Andrew Bird and Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear) from Animal Collective that clued most of the hipsters to pay attention to her. The complimentary article, like Bob Dylan’s first Times review in the early ’60s, cracked the door to her brand of basement-created, art-rock symphonies. Her new album should blow it wide open, revealing a new voice with intriguing collage of sounds and styles.

Unfortunately for Clark, things only become more complicated once the first notes of her hollow-ish, choral vocals sway into view in the opening bars of “The Strangers.” Any Pitchfork.com addict can’t mistake the clear similarity between her voice and that of fellow underground-rock songbird, Feist. Both women share a breathy, thin vocal style that might not cut it against the soul wailers and banshee howlers on “American Idol,” but they use conviction and songwriting to make the most of their limited pipes. The similarities dog Clark for most of the record although she is able to mitigate it through a less organic, more cross-cultural conception of melody composition. At worst, listeners might think Feist is now more artiste than Edith Pilaf.

While Clark’s sonic toolkit differs from Feist’s (or Stevens’ or the Spree’s Tim DeLaughter) and despite what the New York Times Magazine says, her songs also can’t easily be lumped in with Bird or Panda Bear’s records. Her music certainly shares both men’s ambition and jack-of-all-trades status, but not their tastes and convoluted articulations. As a songwriter, Clark is more of a formalist in structure even while her songs lash together elements of rock, electronica, pop, dub and psychedelia. The St. Vincent tracks, despite their layered arrangements and otherworldliness, are essentially pop songs.

Listeners can expect well-crafted, dense stacks of overdubs, but might be taken aback by the dynamic rhythms and how catchy the best tracks are. A wheezing, accordion-like keyboard undulating in the foreground introduces “Save Me From What I Want,” but this is soon banished by a pulsating drumbeat and raining sheets of clink-y notes. Clark’s lyrics very cleverly imply dreams of passion and domestic bliss turned inside out absent any sense of oversharing. The sense of chilly detachment in her voice — now sounding like a placid Alanis Morrisette — suggests a woman worn down by losing too many emotional battles instead of the ramblings of a cold fish. Her words encapsulate the pain and zest in her chest even while her icy veneer allows this bottle up those messy emotions so this track can aspire to be a single.

“Actor Out Of Work” is the record’s first single and its smeary synthesizers and the brittle guitar riffing that recalls ’90s alt-band Veruca Salt make it obvious why it was selected. It’s a thrust of punk-pop rage. The mechanical strumming of the chords gives the cut a stable, relentless source of energy that allows the drums’ fills to provide spurts the function like turbo boosts. Clark herself is the plastic chanteuse buried in waves of synthetic sound, her every verse the recipient of a Nine Inch Nails, distorted guitar snarl.

Although both of these songs are destined to be overlooked gems, nothing can quite prepare for the dance-party banger Clark manages with “Marrow.” Beyonce should take note. The song’s New Wave elan might initially suggest this song is Clark’s at her most antiseptic. That’s until a techno-funk rhythm kicks in and kicks everyone onto the floor. Synthesizers shadow the pounding bassline like an animatronic horn section borrowed from the Stax Records Museum. This is infectious beat is than answered by more Trent Reznor-esque shrill guitar roars and whines. More than just give this record a new unexpected turn, “Marrow” reconnects the obscured linkages between industrial and dance music without surrendering to either aggression or cheerfulness.

The album’s other tracks largely conform to varying degrees of midtempo balladry. They’re an appealing bunch even while they obviously lack the punch of the record’s standouts. Each song — even those focused on an acoustic guitar — retain that sense that Clark looks at each song like her own private concerto. Strings, brass and the like are lovingly dribbled on each track to give the dramatic swells and sweeps that she’s after. The faulty logic is that if the song sounds important, it should be. However, it’s again the infectious rhythms that really separate the pleasing from the pleasant. The skittish drumwork on “The Neighbors,” downbeat hook of “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” and the appealing vocal melody of “The Party,” that propel these songs to be paid attention to.

As the songs on “Actor” make obvious, Clark is the most successful at getting listeners to take note of her when she allows her creativity to run toward the edges of her perceived cache. Too rock or too danceable or too poppy surely suits her far better than trying to convince people she can out-warble the new generation of Lilith Fair artists. That being said, this disc should be a boost of confidence for her years of pent-up creativity.

Many might say an artist can’t hide who they really are. “Actor” proves that this isn’t always the case. She might really be Annie Clark, but she’s a very convincing St. Vincent. And she commands center stage now and deservedly so.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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