Friday, June 5, 2009

St. Vincent - 'Actor'

Two years after she broke out from under the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' collective thumb with Marry Me, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is back with her stunning sophomore solo effort, Actor. Arguably superior in every way, the record takes Marry Me’s promises and expands on them. It’s at times grinding and lilting, but always beautiful and otherworldly. If it’s possible to craft a record that simultaneously recalls Nine Inch Nails, Feist, shoegaze, and Disney movies, Actor is that record.

Like Marry Me, Actor’s first half is easily the better part. It takes the ominous sound of “Your Lips are Red” from the first record and plays with it more. Album opener “The Strangers” kicks off with a steady 4/4 beat dance beat, Clark’s pristine voice, and some strings. It’s dreamy and classy, but dirty guitar fuzz starts to peak through during the second verse. Storm clouds erupt as the song takes on a second stirring, darker life. “Save Me From What I Want” goes the same route, with Clark’s ethereal voice entreating the listener to save her from thoughts “17 cold showers couldn’t wash away.” It’s erotic without being dirty, suggestive without suggesting specifics. Ditto for “The Neighbors,” which combines guitar tricks and vocals to make the ultimate “oh no” sound while Clark wonders “What would your mother say / What your father do / What would the neighbors think / if they only knew?”

The hits keep coming with lead single “Actor Out of Work,” with its propulsive, thundering floor tom and electro synth bits. “Black Rainbow” takes an awkward shift, killing the record’s momentum by rehashing Marry Me’s more plaintive/hopeful dichotomy – think of that record’s title track for the sort of pretty orchestral moments I’m talking about. The slow-building song has payoff similar to “The Strangers,” and is a well-placed left turn overall.

Actor’s second half is generally less immediate, but no less pleasing given time. “Marrow” is the standout, encapsulating every the record tries to do over 39 minutes in three-and-a-half. Orchestral opening, haunting vocals, electro-bluster stomp, pulsing guitar work, and pretty pop moments are all here. “The Bed” tries a different form of dissonance – squealing string instruments, in a controlled John Cage experiment. The final three tracks gradually, gently close the record out.

Clark’s progression from Marry Me, admittedly a solid indie pop record, to Actor is astounding. It’s her first real classic. It’s also a shining example of what can happen when a musician marries her pop sensibilities with fearless experimentation – to the numerous folksy Starbucks chanteuses of the world, the Bat for Lasheseseses and such, here’s the real innovator, a Bjork for my generation, if only in aesthetic.

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