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st. vincent: actor (2009)
April 16, 2009, 12:32 pm
Filed under: album, mp3, review, video | Tags: , , , ,

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St. Vincent
Actor ••••
4AD

Annie Clark’s 2007 debut Marry Me was rapturously received by practically everybody, with critics falling over themselves to hail the arrival of a distinctive new art-rocker – one who’d already paid her dues as a collaborator with Sufjan Stevens and a member of The Polyphonic Spree – and favourable comparisons to Bowie and Bush flew thick and fast. To some (OK, apparently very few) of us, Marry Me sounded a little posed and cluttered, its arrangements consistently inventive but sometimes over-elaborate, its lyrics more clever-clever than actually insightful. But there was no denying that the album’s strongest tracks – the dynamic opener ‘Now, Now’, the mind-blowing ‘Paris Is Burning’, the seductive closing kiss-off ‘What Me Worry’ – clearly picked out Clark as a compelling artist to watch.

That promise is confirmed by the eagerly anticipated Actor, an album that finds Clark honing and developing her idiosyncratic artistic vision. Co-produced with Spree colleague and Modest Mouse associate John Congleton, the album teams Clark with some new collaborators, among them Hideaki Aomori, Alex Sopp (Björk, Phillip Glass) and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith and Paul Alexander. As before, Clark operates her own extraordinary arsenal of instruments, and her arranging and performance skills remain pretty astonishing. (Only Mike Garson’s inimitable piano-playing, a highlight of Marry Me, is sadly missed here.) Anyone who struggled with the restlessness of Marry Me may not find some of their reservations entirely assuaged by Actor – if anything, it is more relentless and aggressive in its quest for fresh, strange sounds – but the end result is unquestionably a highly accomplished and rewarding piece of work.

Clark has described these 11 songs as “technicolor animatronic rides”, and it’s certainly true that each works hard to keep the listener off balance. Dreamy backdrops give way to harsh, insistent percussion; squelchy synths intrude into lilting melodies; there are off-kilter choral interludes, poppy hooks, delicate woodwind and ragged, grungy guitar. Each song was apparently initially inspired by a film (‘Badlands’, ‘Pierrot le Fou’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ among them) and there is something truly cinematic about Actor‘s sonic breadth and depth – its moves from intimate close-up to expansive long-shot; its ability to shift from classical to cutting-edge contemporary (and back) in an instant.

Album opener ‘The Strangers’ sets the restive pace, a ghostly choir opening and closing the song, a jaunty melody then underpinning Clark’s instruction to “paint the black hole blacker” before an unexpected an explosion of menacing guitar and heavy drums. The brilliant ‘The Neighbors’ tries a similar trick even more successfully, marrying a fairground-like melody to exhilarating blasts of distortion. “How can Monday be alright / then on Tuesday lose my mind?” Clark enquires, effectively summing up the song’s delightfully woozy disequilibrium. The only thing wrong with the bracing, addictive single ‘Actor Out Of Work’ is that it’s only two minutes long; it’s easily the most immediate and accessible track here.

Throughout the album, Clark insists that her songs subvert, contort and usurp themselves, relishing their contradictory moods and textures. Sturdy drumming anchors the jazzy ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood’, the chugging ‘Black Rainbow’ culminates in a strident strings-and-drum crescendo, while ‘Marrow’ begins quietly and hesitantly before morphing into a squally electro-disco stomp. Borrowing its title from Lou Reed’s suicidal classic and adapting a bit of e.e. cummings’s ‘somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond’, ‘The Bed’ shifts from claustrophobic verses to wide, wistful choruses, while ‘The Party’ starts out in relatively conventional singer-songwriter mode before its beautiful symphonic coda kicks in. Despite their inevitable twists and turns, these final few tracks feel less frenetic than those which preceded them; indeed, the short, spare ‘The Sequel’ closes the album with a whimper rather than the anticipated bang.

Clark’s capacity to pull a song in a dozen different directions without capsizing it is the defining characteristic and primary fascination of Actor. There’s an art-conscious aspect to the album, a sense of constructed-ness that, while mostly beguiling, sometimes feels a little strained, as if Clark didn’t quite trust these tracks in simpler, more organic forms. Just occasionally she seems less concerned with bringing the listener into a song than getting them to stand back and admire its cleverness, and by the time the massive drums crash in on the twinkling penultimate track ‘Just The Same But Brand New’, you might feel that her penchant for including a “twist” towards the end of her sonic motion pictures has worn a little thin.

While there’s no doubting the intelligence, craft and sheer damned inventiveness of Actor, you wouldn’t describe it as an album that touches the heart. On most of these songs, Clark favours an arty distance that precludes emotional involvement, and, amidst the instrumental riches, her vocal approaches seem somewhat less varied than on Marry Me. These qualities ultimately conspire to make Actor an album that is likely to stir up feelings of admiration rather than love. Even so, it’s an original, exciting and impressive record that is sure to rank among the year’s best.

Alex Ramon
UK release date: 04/05/09; www.myspace.com/stvincent

 

FREE MP3: St. Vincent, ‘The Strangers’

 

‘Actor Out Of Work’

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[…] Richardson Andrews 30/4] 09 Kaki King – Mexican Teenagers EP [Loria Near 4/4] 10 St Vincent – Actor [Alex Ramon […]

Pingback by Q2: 50 most read reviews « wears the trousers magazine

[…] What we said then: “While there’s no doubting the intelligence, craft and sheer damned inventiveness of Actor, you wouldn’t describe it as an album that touches the heart. On most of these songs, [Annie] Clark favours an arty distance that precludes emotional involvement, and, amidst the instrumental riches, her vocal approaches seem somewhat less varied than on Marry Me. These qualities ultimately conspire to make Actor an album that is likely to stir up feelings of admiration rather than love. Even so, it’s an original, exciting and impressive record that is sure to rank among the year’s best.” •••• Alex Ramon […]

Pingback by best of 2009: readers poll results #10-1 « wears the trousers magazine




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