Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Review: St. Vincent - Actor (* * * * 1/2)

Like her choice of album art for her sophomore solo effort, Actor, Annie Clark’s music is often beguiling, though her experimental pop style has won her more than a few fans since her debut in 2007. The former Polyphonic Spree member’s decision to go it alone under the moniker St. Vincent seems to have been an excellent one, as her new album expands on the promise of her debut, Marry Me, and further establishes Clark as one of indie rock’s premier new songwriters. Apparently, Clark’s more orchestral style stemmed from using Apple’s Garage Band to write many of the songs, which were then fleshed out with her signature guitar playing, strings, woodwinds, and more to give her often eerie narratives the proper background. Whether it was the unique songwriting approach or simply a series of great musical ideas, Actor is a truly exceptional record even by Clark’s own high standard.

She wastes no time in getting things off the ground with “The Strangers,” a relatively sparse tune with her gorgeous voice floating over synthetic beats, keys, and the occasional burst of heavily distorted guitar. It’s a striking song that ushers in a sense of immediacy and urgency that continues throughout Actor despite the album’s relatively mid-tempo nature. On many of the songs, the vocals are introduced almost immediately (and no later than thirty seconds in), serving as a constant reminder that as abstract or strange as the music may occasionally be, this is primarily a songwriter’s record. Clark’s lyrics stir up a mixture of emotions that are often slightly unsettling, made more so by music that’s consistently beautiful but never predictable or stationary. Especially eclectic are “Marrow,” which starts eerily with soft vocals over simple synthesizers before erupting into a distorted plea for help that’s genuinely startling, and “Black Rainbow,” which gently carries on until it begins to devolve into a noisy, hazy climax of guitar, drums, and sinister string arrangements.

Sitting squarely and appropriately in the middle of the record is the hauntingly elegant “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood,” the perfect combination of Clark’s love of both dramatic arrangements and simply stunning melodies. The following half of the album, aside from the aforementioned “Marrow,” is slightly more relaxed but no less compelling. “The Bed” churns slowly and thoughtfully, “The Party” is refreshingly approachable in its gentle pop presentation, and closer “The Sequel” is a brief and lovely final thought. By the end of the record’s 39 minutes, you’re left with what I’ve found to be a rare feeling of real satisfaction, unmarred by weak or distracting moments that plague so many albums by promising and talented artists. That’s not to say that Actor is perfect, but it’s certainly great enough to warrant the high praise it has received.

The production, the sequencing, and the presentation on Actor are all top-notch. In fact, it can be accurately said that Annie Clark doesn’t so much show promise now as she realizes and fulfills it. Of course, she has so much time to continue to impress us that we can’t cap her potential here, but Actor should receive its proper dues as much more than just a transitional piece leading to future greatness. St. Vincent has arrived, and everyone should be getting on board.

Last Word: Actor, Annie Clark’s sophomore effort as St. Vincent, is a mature, complex, and remarkably gripping blend of intriguing experimentation and beautiful melodies.