St Vincent

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

Marry Me (2007) , 7.5/10
Actor (2009) , 6.5/10
Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011), 6.5/10
St Vincent (2014), 7/10
Masseduction (2017), 5/10

St Vincent, the project of New York-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clarke, debuted with Marry Me (Beggars Banquet, 2007). Her artistic manifesto Now Now is a complex clockwork of digital and acoustic arrangements, a post-everything (hip-hop, soul, pop, glitch and rock) kind of recombinant compound. Jesus Saves I Spend replicates the architectural miracle erecting a spiraling merry-go-round around childish vocal harmonies. After undergoing her kind of musical surgery the soul ballad Marry Me a` la Macy Gray does not "look" like a soul ballad at all. The rocking and passionate The Apocalypse Song sounds like Alanis Morissette with a surreal instrumental interlude.
She couples simple, elegant and charming melodies with the most acrobatic mood shifts and sonic contrasts. Your Lips Are Red begins with little more than pow-wow drumming but, by the end, it has picked up industrial clangor, acoustic fingerpicking, Middle Eastern strings and dissonant piano. Paris Is Burning begins with flamenco guitar but, by the end, it has mutated into a Weill-ian waltz for Brecht-ian theater. The mellow pop ballad All My Stars Aligned is Burt Bacharach at his most moronic, but then the song suddenly changes tone and rhythm, propelled by martial drums and manic cello. The nocturnal bluesy lounge shuffle Landmines is redeemed by vintage sound effects, exotic guitar and neoclassical harp.
The album ends with the two songs (Brazilian bossanova of Human Racing, the orchestral pop elegy What Me Worry) that take their genres seriously, and it's a dangerous artistic move, albeit a commercially sensible one.
Nonetheless, the firepower of the arrangements is impressive enough to conceal whatever mainstream motivations the artist might have.

Actor (4AD, 2009) opens with one of her typical melodies, not only catchy but also disarmingly elegant: The Strangers. It's like hearing a young Kate Bush without the art-rock attitude. Even when her inspiration is not quite up to the task, as in The Neighbors and The Bed, she still pens grand arias worthy of Broadway musicals.
Several songs display a more "robust" structure. She employs syncopated hard beats for the gospel Save Me From What I Want. She abandons her discreet charm to plunge into a pummeling hybrid of hard rock and industrial music in Actor Out Of Work that would have done well on Sugarsmack's album.
The arrangement is a bit less creative than on the debut album, but can still steal the show. The pastoral neoclassical adagio Black Rainbow is the best example. The relatively lengthy Just The Same But Brand New is mainly about the oneirically floating instruments. Even when she moves dangerously close to Bjork's territory, like in Marrow, the soundscape's dynamics can become so overwhelming to obscure the similarities. The lounge ballad The Party eventually drowns in a sea of strings and choir. Nonetheless, there is no denying that some of the first album's magic is gone. What is particularly missed is her art of metamorphoses.

The songs of Strange Mercy (4AD, 2011) feel more physical than before, if not more eccentric and experimental. The spectral, strutting, martial Cheerleader, the energetic and syncopated Chloe in the Afternoon, the rousing tribal crescendo of Northern Lights funnel a broad spectre of techniques into simple melodic ditties. This album is permeated by a sense or a quality of history. It represents the moment when punk ethos, pop tradition and noise aggresion collide and neutralize each other. Like most singer-songwriters, she takes her lyrics too seriously. If she could see them for what they are (mere sounds), she would focus more on structure, vocalization and arrangement (like she briefly does in the jazztronica of Surgeon, with an excellent guitar solo, and in the synth-pop lullaby Cruel), and probably fly a lot higher.

Love This Giant (2012) was a collaboration with David Byrne.

The stylistic metamorphoses of Annie Clark on St Vincent (Loma Vista, 2014) are mindboggling. She begins with the stuttering electronic beat Rattlesnake and feverish James Brown-ian funk swagger; then takes a detour into the angular, hard-rocking Birth In Reverse, before reviving the romantic ballad of the 1950s in Prince Johnny. She hops from trip-hop (I Prefer Your Love) to Afro-samba (Bring Me Your Loves) and from Kate Bush-ian balladry (Severed Crossed Fingers) to disco-punk of the 1980s (Every Tear Disappears).
Sometimes the changes occur within the same song, and without the slightest shock. She impersonates the pop diva in the first half of Huey Newton and a wicked crunchy Joan Jett in its second half. Psychopath turns Lou Reed's existential boogie into a rousing romantic anthem. It is an impressive demonstration of mastery, confidence and focus.

With the exception of the single New York, a meditative mournful song, and a couple of intimate elegies (Hang on Me, Happy Birthday Johnny), Masseduction (2017) is embroiled in loud and sleek synth-pop. Masseduction, Young Lover, Pills and Los Ageless (the catchiest) sound like Lady Gaga without the pop hooks, or Billy Idol without the hysterical fits. At least Sugarboy evokes the silly dance-punk of Berlin (the 1980s band), but again without the refrains. Only Fast Slow Disco (the remixed version of Slow Disco released in 2018) seems to know a way to turn this mess of fashionable beats and screams into a coherent act. But not on this album.

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(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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