About two years ago I accompanied my friend Ryan to a John Vanderslice show at the Local 506. He was set up to do a quick interview with JV for WSOE, so we showed up during sound check. John was notably frazzled, trying to juggle a dinner date with his mom (a Chapel Hill dweller), re-learning an older track for the show that night (“They Won’t Let Me Run”), and our interview. While John was out with his mom (who, unsurprisingly, is a super nice lady), Ryan and I caught the opening act, St. Vincent, do her sound sound check. She was mousy looking, swimming in curly hair, and wearing some seriously oversized glasses. I knew one song from her then-forthcoming album Marry Me called “Now, Now”, but other than that was in the dark with zero expectations.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone command a guitar like that on stage, male or female (and I’ve seen some impressive guitarists). She was stomping on some kind of bass drum pedal while singing into two competing microphones, switching between her guitar and a set of keys. It can be hard to love songs you don’t know live, but I ate up everything St. Vincent had to offer that night, and quickly put the Marry Me release date on my record-anticipation calendar.
Two years later I know a lot more about St. Vincent, otherwise known as Annie Clark. She was born in Oklahoma, went to Berklee College of Music, played with the Polyphonic Spree, and toured with Sufjan Stevens. She really likes Arrested Development and signs her blog posts with XX’s, OO’s, and AC.
I also know that I happened to adore Marry Me, an album I tried to push on most of my friends with little success. It passed the pitchfork test, was musically textured, and lyrically interesting – so what was the problem?
I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer until recently when I sat down and listened to Annie’s sophomore release, Actor. Don’t let the simplistic, coral-colored album art fool you – this is one musically complicated album.
It’s not that I don’t like this album, it’s that I still can’t relax into it. The songs are experimental and unpredictable – the arrangements complicated and at times industrial sounding. From what I’ve read, it seems that the critics are eating up this record, impressed at the extra level of effort and complication it has over its predecessor.
But does complicated automatically mean better? To me Annie’s strengths are her unique voice, lyrics, and guitar ability. The unpredictable noisemaking added to tracks like “Now, Now” and “Paris Is Burning” on Marry Me, but didn’t overshadow the experience of the song like it seems to on Actor.
Don’t get me wrong – this album has lots of serious high points. The first half of “The Strangers”, the lyrics and string crescendo on “Black Rainbow”, the low key feel of “Laughing With A Mouth Full of Blood”, the background vocals on “Save Me From What I Want”, the eastern influence on “The Bed”, and the rhythm and string section on “Actor Out Of Work” are what keep bringing me back to this record.
But the circus feel on “The Neighbors”, awkward spelling out of H-E-L-P on “Marrow”, and the all-around boringness of “The Party”, “Just The Same But Brand New”, and “The Sequel” pull down the albums strengths.
It’s a good record, and no one is denying that Annie Clark is a damn good musician and songwriter. But after the expectations I had coming out of Marry Me, I can’t help but be a little disappointed. Regardless, her live show is sure not to disappoint. Unless you’ve got the money to camp out in Tennessee the closest thing North Carolinians can get to a St. Vincent show this summer is Athens, Ga. on June 13th.
*1. The Strangers
*2. Save Me From What I Want
3. The Neighbors
*4. Actor Out Of Work
*5. Black Rainbow [SOT]
*6. Laughing With A Mouth Full of Blood
8. The Bed
9. The Party
10. Just The Same But Brand New
11. The Sequel
SOT = Standout Track