St. Vincent - Actor
Since picking up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs new album It's Blitz! a few weeks ago, I had been lauding it as the best album of the year. I showered the record with praise that drenched it like the guy in the old Irish Spring commercials. And all of that praise was deserved, but guess what... 2009 is an INCREDIBLE year for new music and St. Vincent's new release Actor has supplanted It's Blitz! as the front runner for album of the year. And yes, I know it's only May. I have a calendar. I just wrote about calendars, I love them... there's lots of 2009 left. But that's what is so additionally exciting. It's only May! Great music is oozing out of this year, so please go to a record store, pick up something new (or... "download" it if the tangible disinterests you).
Actor arrives two years after St. Vincent's first album Marry Me, which was one of the most exciting new artist debuts in recent memory. Of course, a great first album is both a blessing and a bane. We've all heard of the sophomore curse that destroys some bands before they begin or shows, in the case of former-darlings Franz Ferdinand, what a band really is... patently shitty. Actor denies the sophomore slump with the force of a hurricane mixed with an earthquake bred with a grizzly bear. The album is better than Marry Me, and almost completely different, not at all content to rest on successful folk-infused indie balladiering. Instead it strives toward a more dissonant, crunchier, over-driven sound coupled with gorgeous vocals and ingenious (yes... so genius there's a prefix) lyrics.
St. Vincent is not a band, but one Annie Clark, a multi-instrumentalist dynamo from Tulsa, Oklahoma who also happens to be entirely gorgeous. Prior to her solo releases she was a member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' touring band. And she's an incredible musician, both vocally and in her compositions. Seeing her live is an experience that anyone with a shred of fandom in them must do. Clark takes the stage alone, surrounded with instruments, effects pedals, double mics and minimal lighting. She then proceeds to create songs from the album, layered and sonically dense, without any one's help. She is a slight, demure character, with lightly curled dark hair cut above the shoulders and big, inviting eyes. She looks smaller than her voice, and yet she's capable of invoking deep passion, fear and whimsy through the haunting (yet sweet) quality in her singing.
Back to the album. A rarity in being better than her first, Clark creates a dark, but delightful scene reminiscent of the opium scenes in Alice In Wonderland. (I mean, the whole book/movie is opiate-laden, but specifically the mood and tone of whispering precariousness.) Opening with a howling track called "The Strangers," the album continues to haunting tracks like "Black Rainbow" and "Just The Same But Brand New". Actor isn't devoid of upbeat, fun tracks though. "Actor Out Of Work" is incredible, and I compel you to check out the video. My favorite track captures the ideas of aging, isolation, and trying to go home and it has the most hardcore title on the album. "Laughing With A Mouthful Of Blood" crashes and then paces with brilliant lyrics like "All of my old friends aren't so friendly, and all of my old haunts are now haunting me." Very concisely expressing the very alienation that time can provide, and Annie Clark loves alienation... and she's not afraid of it. For St. Vincent, life is a complicated fantasy and success isn't predicated through skill or talent so much how we face the darknesses around us. We've got to hunt the monsters under the bed. Take the fight to them. No more lying awake in fear.
Actor deserves an A grade, and it's an 11 on the Spinal Tap scale of excellence. Annie Clark has shown an incredible virtuosity and creativity that is so rare in the current one-and-done indie rock scene. It's not often that the new record is better than the first, especially when the first was deliciously breakout awesome. This one is. Now, if only she'd write a song called "Marry Me, Nate" I could die in peace.
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