Music

St. Vincent: Actor

St. Vincent plays in any number of genres, but buries them so deeply in the concrete and rebar of her thundering industrial clatter that they take some coaxing out. And even then they only come out in pieces, coated in the dust of her unique sound.


St. Vincent

Actor

Label: 4AD
US Release Date: 2009-05-05
UK Release Date: 2009-05-04
Amazon
iTunes

Back in 1973, Arlo Guthrie made a record about being The Last Cowboy in Brooklyn. But that statement has, for better or worse, proven false. Plenty of dudes are sitting in the meat district right now plucking on an acoustic and listening to their Willie Nelson records, doing their best take on lonesome in the crowded city. And there's nothing wrong with bringing the country to the city -- in fact, there's some downright classic music that has resulted from just that action. But country also does just fine on its own -- you know, out in the country -- so it begs the question of why more artists don't inject some more city into that country sound.

St. Vincent's Annie Clark does just that, and does it very well on her new album Actor. Yes, you could call what she does orchestral pop, and that would be okay. But that says more about her former associations with the likes of Sufjan Stevens than about her actual sound. There are plenty of lilting strings and built-up compositions, but St. Vincent doesn't get enough credit for the deconstruction work her music does. Particularly on Actor, Annie Clark plays in any number of genres, but buries them so deeply in the concrete and rebar of her thundering industrial clatter that they take some coaxing out. And even then they only come out in pieces, coated in the dust of her unique sound.

Take opener "The Strangers". It starts with deep strings and a chorus of hollow voices before Clark's voice lilts in on the thump on an insistent beat. As she did on Marry Me, she constructs a choir by layering her own voice in the background, seething out the line "Paint the black hole blacker" over and over again. And then she drowns her voice in echoes on murky breakdowns before the song sparks to life as a fuzzed-out rock song. The sheer inertia of it all is a lot to take in, and it is unsettling because there's a space underneath -- something sparer fighting to be heard. And towards the end of the song we get it. The slight pluck of Clark's acoustic guitar aligns perfectly with the dreamy sway of her voice. And while acoustic guitar doesn't equal folk music, it's hard not to hear the barest elements of this song as a playfully sardonic folk ballad.

The brilliant "Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood" lays its folk intentions out right at the front, with a pastoral intro of guitar and strings that is immediately cut by the hushed burn of spare drums and dark comedy of Clark's lyrics. The treble-light guitar and quick-fire repetition of the backing vocals on "Save Me From What I Want" sounds like a clever, one-woman take on girl-group R&B. And lead single "Actor Out of Work" has all the piss and vinegar of the grimiest garage rock, but it's sent shimmering by swirling electronics and pristine vocals. "Marrow" works in the opposite way, starting as something more stately and beautiful, and pulling itself apart into chaos-rock squeals.

Clark's ability to imbed the organic within the mechanized is what makes these songs distinctly hers, but she isn't content to hide in the noise. She plays some of these songs are straight pop, and proves herself a stunning songwriter. The piano balladry of "The Party" captures the glaze-eyed lull of a night ending beautifully as she picks out perfectly decrepit details, like the compelling holes of a lover's t-shirt. "The Bed" also puts Clark front and center, the faintest strings and bass notes hardly punctuating the rise and tumble of her voice.

And sometimes, sure, Actor does put more obvious orchestral pop tools to work, particularly on the dramatic rises that ends "Black Rainbow" and "Just the Same But Brand New". But it works because, even in these moments, Annie Clark is playing with a genre others have put her in by default. But this is not music that soars and floats. The strings swell and keys shine throughout, but they are always jabbed by the dry wit of Clark's words, rattled by computer buzzing, and beaten down by the impressive pounding of drums throughout the record. And as the violins lilt away, there are deeper strings there to give "Black Rainbow" an edge, or "Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood" a sinister gallop.

So, in the end, Clark is acting on this record. Maybe not as a cowboy in Brooklyn. But surely she's acting as a folk singer, a soul diva, a deathly funny troubadour, a heartbreaking pop balladeer, or a rocking indie chick. In short, she's acting like St. Vincent. And what's surprising is just how nuanced that performance is, because Actor marks no huge departures her work on Marry Me, but it still manages to constantly surprise, always meshing the earthen with the industrial in strange and compelling ways. That's probably because Annie Clark isn't settling into her sound with her sophomore album. Apparently, she's just getting started with it.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.