Artist to Watch: St. Vincent Is an Art Rock Guitar Hero



It isn’t often that you go to a rock show and leave feeling as if you just watched an example of sheer brilliance unfold: A musician who gives a performance proving that she deserves not only to be better recognized but to become legendary. It isn’t often that you leave a show feeling as if you just witnessed something truly beautiful. I felt both of those things upon leaving Nashville’s hipster-industrial venue Marathon Music Works on Friday night after seeing St. Vincent perform in support of her new, self-titled album, upon which critics have been spilling some rapturous ink.

St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark, a songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and guitar virtuoso from Texas who currently resides in Manhattan and creates weirdly unique and angular pop music. The name comes from Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center, the hospital where poet Dylan Thomas died in 1953. “It’s the place where poetry comes to die,” Clark has said. St. Vincent has been an indie favorite for years, since her debut, Marry Me, came out in 2007. Since then she’s put out three more records leading up to the release of St. Vincent last month, including a collaboration with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne called Love This Giant that was released in 2012.

Clark has been relegated to the indie-weird-art rock scene by virtue of her oddness — bizarre lyrics, unexpected instrumentation. She talks about herself like a college art professor, unable or unwilling to shed the academic air even when being begged by Stephen Colbert to just loosen up. “I’ve always tried to live at the intersection of accessibility and lunatic fringe,” she tells Colbert in response to being asked if one could like her music “or do you have to ‘get it’?” But listen to songs like “Rattlesnake” or “Strange Mercy” and you’ll hear an artist who deserves her spot in the contemporary rock canon.

“I decided to call it St. Vincent because I was reading Miles Davis’s autobiography, and he has a great line where he says the hardest thing for a musician to do is sound like yourself,” Clark told Nashville Scene in a phone interview. “And I felt like this record, I was walking into it with a lot of confidence and a lot of self-assuredness and a lot of optimism. So it just felt like the one to self-title.”

Clark put as much care into the album’s aesthetics as she did the music, working with a renown creative director to create what she’s called a “visual bible” of what inspired her visually while working on the record and crafting the show. She cites filmmakers and art movements that you’ve never heard of and speaks about how “we perform our selves in a myriad of ways,” things that as Colbert noted can make the non-academic feel a bit excluded.

In between songs, her version of stage banter was a spoken-word poem about how well she was getting to know all the audience members with corresponding interpretive dance. The great thing about St. Vincent is you don’t have to “get” everything she’s doing and referencing to enjoy her music or her shows. Blabbering like a jerk about how pretentious she may be is of course an option, but in doing so, you’ll miss out on one of the most original and brilliant musicians working today and an album that’s sure to make it on every “Best of 2014″ list.

St. Vincent’s performances for this tour have been heavily influenced by her time on the Love This Giant tour, which utilized weird modern dance choreography. Clark enlisted the same choreographer to help her make some strange dance moves that could be performed with a guitar dangling off her tall, skeletal frame. Much of the time not spent carrying a guitar was devoted to the bizarre interpretive dance that she pulls off without a hint of self-consciousness, even while being stared down by a crowd of very still hipsters.

But this show was far from a bizarre pop performance piece. Backed up by a three-piece band consisting of a keyboardist, drummer, and another keyboardist who sometimes played guitar, Clark took her fantastic new album and added all the shredding guitar solos that you wish had been included on the record. It was almost as if she released the album and then decided for the tour that she would do us one better. The jerky interpretive dance moves degenerated into Clark hopping around the stage frantically like a monkey on Adderall, white hair sticking straight out as if she’d stuck her finger in a light socket.

The band shared in Clark’s glee. Keyboardist, guitarist, and theremin wizard Toko Yasuda participated in both the choreography and guitar-shredding. As a girl who educated herself on feminism via riot girl bands like Hole and Bikini Kill during some sullen teenage years, the sight of the two women trading solos all the while dancing, exuding joy as the girl-punks of the nineties exuded anger, seemed like some sort of personal feminist victory.

Songs like “Rattlesnake” and “Huey Newton” devolved from upbeat, angular pop into dirty, fuzzed-out rock shredders. During those solos that prove Clark to be one of the best guitarists around, you watched the choreography crumble. The St. Vincent track “Bring Me Your Loves” was a prime example of a song that started out like pop and morphed into a guitar solo that made the collective jaws of the place fall through the concrete floor.

Clark played a decent chunk of St. Vincent but included old favorites like “Cruel” and “Cheerleader.” She made use of a replica of the giant pink throne featured on the cover of the album, at times sitting on it and recreating the cover art or triumphantly standing atop it as if looking to crush the weird “near-future cult leader” it’s supposed to represent. One of the best treats of the evening was an encore performance of “Strange Mercy,” from 2011′s album of the same name. Clark performed the song alone, giving poignant, bare-bones proof of her musicianship that pushed the show from the territory of awesome into perfection.

St. Vincent describes her aesthetic as that of a “near-future cult leader,” and her Kool-aid tastes amazing. This is what one looks for when attending a rock concert — shows that offer beauty and transcendence and truth along with the price of your ticket stub. If that sounds like what you want from your music, then get the album and buy the concert ticket (her tour schedule is frightening). If not, you can always illegally download more Rihanna or whatever it is people who don’t care about music listen to.

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