Fall break 2011 ended fantastically, for me, with a chance to see one of my favorite musical artists of the past couple years: St. Vincent. Even if you don’t listen to St. Vincent, you may have enjoyed frontwoman Annie Clark’s skills without even knowing it: she was a member of both The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. Clark, a porcelain-skinned, deceptively-waifish singer and guitarist, is an artist whose sheer talent claws its way through the feeblest of earbuds, unable to be ignored—so you can imagine my excitement to see her perform live. Her talent—and there really is a considerable lot of it—was in full, spotlit, often overwhelming display on Tuesday night.
Opener Cate Le Bon, a singer-songwriter hailing from Wales who performs in both English and Welsh, charmed the crowd and paved the way for Annie Clark’s vocals with her own sweet, throatily pure voice. Her guitar playing wouldn’t hold a candle to Clark’s later mastery, but her singing was lovely and her lyrics intriguingly dark. After an anticipation-building wait, St. Vincent kicked off their set with new album Strange Mercy’s lead single, “Surgeon”. As she would for the duration of the concert, Annie Clark held center stage with her guitar, criss-crossed by four angled spotlights, forming the taut, vibrating nervous center of all the dark energy called up by the music and the dramatic lighting. Like many St. Vincent songs, “Surgeon” squeals at the end from a seemingly-subdued lull into electric-guitar pandemonium, complete, in the live version, with blinding strobe lights.
The second song, “Cheerleader”, another selection from Strange Mercy, began in darkness, only Clark’s face illuminated by a single light. Through the sheer force of her personality, seemingly, she ripped the song gradually apart, turning restraint to passion. The chorus of the song—“I, I, I, I, I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more”—was all fiery resolve, each “I” punctuated by offset pulsing lights. Into the rapturous moment of silence after the song, she purred: “Thank you, Los Angeles.” And we were grateful.
Despite the imploring title, the third song, “Save Me from What I Want” from sophomore album Actor, displayed Clark in total control, commanding stage and audience, her voice ever stronger. She first demonstrated her voice’s vulnerable, breakable quality on new song “Chloe in the Afternoon”, but swerved back into badass territory immediately afterward with the scornful “Dilettante”.
One of the centerpieces of the set, Strange Mercy standout “Cruel”, illustrates St. Vincent’s aesthetic as anything I can imagine. Clark described the song’s music video (in which a motherless family kidnaps her and forces her to perform various housewifely tasks to her inept best); then, with a little shrug, she said sweetly: “Then they buried me alive.” The song itself was as transcendentally beautiful as anyone, having listened to the recorded version, could imagine, and, with the music video’s images in mind, it was just as eerie. Watching or listening to St. Vincent is like looking into the twisted mind of a superficially innocent, fragile girl, whose rage and indignation with how the world overlooks and underestimates her has knotted up into a beautiful, burning, complex, and terrifying vision.
The next song, “Just the Same but Brand New” (another Actor highlight), encapsulated that contradiction perfectly in its mix of pure incandescent beauty and Clark’s absolute shredding on the guitar at the end. Strange Mercy’s title track showed up a couple songs later at a slower point in the show, allowing Clark to again showcase her incredible talent on the guitar and her gift with lyrics at their saddest and most broken. Nonetheless, when she sang a key line from the song—“if I ever meet the dirty policeman who roughed you up, oh, I don’t know what”—she seemed genuinely livid. Next came an amazing cover of a song by Bristol post-punk band The Pop Group called “She is Beyond Good and Evil”, a song I hadn’t known before the concert but the original of which I can hardly imagine outstripping St. Vincent’s version for sheer shreddage and hardcore, passionate awesomeness.
Every song in St. Vincent’s repertoire deserves at least a line in this already gushing review, but suffice it to say that the first song of the encore, “The Party”, featuring just Clark and her keyboardist, was one of the most beautiful moments my ears have ever experienced. Then, just in case we momentarily forgot that this delicate young woman could rock, the night ended with “Your Lips are Red”, from her first album, Marry Me. It was “Your Lips are Red”, though, as piped through the mind described above—industrial, angry, and twisted, seething with weird effects and feedback and blunt, heavy drums, climaxing with Annie Clark on her knees, guitar wailing, before seguing into an innocuously smooth outro.
Review by Julia Ringo.
Image from the music video for “Cruel” by St. Vincent.