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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

St. Vincent: "Actor"

Annie Clark's 2007 debut as St. Vincent is (still), in my opinion, the best debut album from a female solo artist in the last decade. In it, she introduced herself as a charismatic, talented artist with a beautiful voice and an absolute skill for crafting charming pop songs. On Actor, her sophomore release, Clark is content to not retread old grounds entirely while simultaneously expanding on the sound that made her so endearing in the first place. The result is an album that is not near as solid as its predecessor, but portrays Annie Clark as a person who is capable of more than pretty little pop songs.

Actor, first and foremost, is a much heavier, denser album than Marry Me; more Shara Worden than Regina Spektor. Clark's guitar skills are not as apparent on this album, but they have their loud, obtrusive moments. "The Strangers," opens the album on a light, bouncy note as Clark sings "Paint the black hole blacker," over some lovely instrumentation. It's not until the instrumental bridge that we witness the darkness of which she sings - an incredibly distorted electric guitar, bursting through the mix to accelerate the song and, consequently, the album as well. Keep that in mind. It's not the last time it'll pop up on Actor.

The album's biggest flaw is its lack of many catchy hooks. That sounds kind of shallow, but it's something the Marry Me had - that made it so relentlessly listenable - that Actor does not. "Actor Out of Work" and "Marrow" are the most notable exceptions to this comment, the former being the album's first single and most radio-friendly tune. "Marrow," on the other hand, is just an awesome example of Clark's "WTF-ness." One second she's singing softly of some ghoulish synth choirs and the next she's singing "H-E-L-P/Help me!/ Help me!" over a consortium of distorted guitars, drums, and a saxophone (among others, I'm sure). On my first run-through of Actor, it was the first track to stand out and give me a "whoah" moment. It remains my favorite even now and is a must-listen for any fan that would like to hear Annie's take on "acid pop."

What Actor lacks in catchiness, it more than makes up for with dramatic flair. The instrumentation on this album makes Marry Me sound anemic in comparison. It was a very vocally-driven album. Actor undoubtedly proves that Annie Clark is capable of more than just a pretty voice, and she deserves all the credit in the world for arranging this album in its entirety. "Black Rainbow" has a simple eighth-note syncopation that builds and builds until it finally erupts into a 1 1/2 minute evil freakout that will absolutely blow your mind! On "Just the Same but Brand New," her vocals are a side note to the stunning composition that is going on around her. That's made all the more impressive when you consider that the lyrics on the song are one of the album's best!

As far as songs on the album that are "bad," there are none (just like last time), but there are a few that just don't do it for me. "Save Me From What I Want" has a really cool bass and drum line, but the chorus is lacking in everything an effective hook needs. Likewise "The Sequel," while beautifully composed, has forgettable vocals and is too fleeting to not be skipped over, while "The Party" starts out well enough but squanders it on a 2-minute outro that is neither interesting nor necessary. The thing you'll notice about all three of those critiques is that each of them has something positive to say about the song, as well as negative. That's the thing about Actor. For every moment that may feel misguided or flat, there's something that either completely negates it or takes your mind off of it. So even on songs that aren't my favorites, there are still things that I like about it, that keep me coming back. Who knows, maybe a month from now I will have listened to them enough to see them in a different light.

I once read an interview with Annie, describing the process of making Marry Me. She described it as a long process; a collection of songs written, rewritten, tweaked, and polished over the course of several years until it was perfect. It was that "first" album that every great artist makes. The challenge, of course, is following it up with something as deserving of praise and admiration. Actor is that album. Annie Clark has been careful to make a record that doesn't just pick up where she left off. Here, she blazes a new trail; one that is not as strong as its predecessor, but still full of beauty, darkness, and wonder. Actor is an album that will not soon be forgotten or pushed aside. It is something that will leave an impression long after the last note fades out. In that way, I suppose it's much like Marry Me.

Key Tracks:
1. "Actor Out of Work"
2. "Black Rainbow"
3. "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood"
4. "Marrow"
5. "Just the Same but Brand New"

7 out of 10 Stars

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