St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Who doesn’t love Annie Clark? I loved her before I ever heard any of her albums, encountering her one New York afternoon a few years ago when she was in rehearsals with the avant-garde marching band Asphalt Orchestra. On her laptop, she was fine-tuning an arrangement of a piece, co-written with David Byrne, as trumpets hocketed about her. The woman is photogenic, to be sure, but carries herself with such an unfussy manner that it didn’t dawn on me who she was until we’d been talking for a bit. The same thing happened again a couple of months later when I walked into an East Village cafe to interview someone else (a not-quite celebrity then whom everyone is now sick of hearing about). This complete total stranger comes up to me, arms open with a big smile, to say hello.
Who? Uh, me? Well hi! (Who is this?) (Oh!)
It wasn’t until about five minutes ago that I realized I’d seen her onstage with both the Polyphonic Spree AND Sufjan Stevens. See? This is why I stopped being a music critic. I just suck, even at knowing what I’d dig ridiculously.
Needless to say, I got acquainted with her music. Mostly, Love This Giant, the unusual brass-band album that Clark co-wrote with Byrne and an assortment of arrangers – the end of the arc that was rooted in the day I first met her. I’m still not an aficionado, but speaking as a card-carrying cranky old motherfucker who pretty much hates everything remotely labeled “popular music,” Clark – performing as her nom-du-rock/studio-stage entity St. Vincent – is an exemplary “rock artist” for an age where the concept of that no longer has any meaning. She’s a monster guitar player in a hundred different ridiculous ways I am too ignorant to even tell you about, but she never lets her Berklee School of Music Wonk Cred get in the way of skronking and never lets the skronking get in the way of crafting the tune (in fact, part of what endears me to her is how she has so cheerfully taken up the mantle of post-Beefheart mutant scree, while likewise betraying no anxieties over a) singing purty, b) echoing the shiny keyboard-driven melodies of the new wave ’80s and, c) being all about generic admixture). Thus, in a mere three songs from her new self-titled release, she displays more ingenuity, versatility, inspired weirdness and chops than most of your album collection filed between F and Q.
I’d direct you first to “Huey Newton,” not so much about the Black Panther leader as noodling on that laptop in a Google death spiral, a song cued by a synth line out of, say, a Dr. Dre production, accompanied by a slowed down hip-hop drumbeat, which all gives way to Rainbow Brite keyboards (very Sufjan) then to metallic fuzz-bleeding guitar and Clark’s hummingbird trills. Next it’s “Digital Witness,” which could be a Love This Giant outtake, thumping along to brass band bumptiousness while she sings about a postmodern malaise (I think). “I Prefer Your Love” begins as a classic throwback ballad (kind of in a Sinead/minimalist retro-soul mode, with synths and drum loops), a plea for forgiveness that could soon be on a dozen romantic movie soundtracks. (“I prefer your love/ to Jesus” is the refrain). Only there’s no curveball.
Everything else on this album is just as good, a whirling kaleidoscope that finds true grit in neon gumball artifice.