People like me are asked one question more than any other: "what can you do as a music major?" I doubt I have ever managed to answer convincingly. The same cannot be said for Annie Clark. She became an indie rock darling.
Annie Clark has played with Sufjan Stevens, Polyphonic Spree, and appeared in a duet with the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer on the latter’s recent solo endeavor. Her musicianship is truly staggering, equally impressive in live performance, and outshone only by her uncanny ability to make fishnets look elegant. When performing her own material, she is “St. Vincent,” whose last album, Marry Me, was easily the best I heard in 2007. Actor, the highly anticipated follow-up was released May 5 on 4AD.
The song titles could just as easily grace the marquee of some revival movie theater. And the cover of the record looks more like a portfolio headshot than anything resembling album art. There is even talk that, before all is said and done, Annie would like to try her hand at film scoring. But, coming off a release as memorable as the last one, St. Vincent have a lot to live up to.
Actor starts off strong with “The Strangers.” The track is not far removed from the guitar driven layering of Marry Me while also serving to introduce key stylistic elements indicative of the current album, namely rhythmic instability and a more orchestral approach songwriting with a tendency to turn violent. On the third track, “The Neighbors,” the departure from her earlier work grows more apparent. Here, Annie sings, “let’s pour wine in coffee pots, gather round the neighborhood / and shine our headlights on houses until all the news is good,” while strings play a waltz (a mazurka, to be more specific) while handclaps insist on 4/2. The addition of drums only complicates things further, seeming to enforce both time signatures simultaneously until the band settles on a firm 8/8 (3+3+2/8) about three minutes in. As you can probably gather by now, this is a highlight for me.
As the album progresses, St. Vincent continues to push the perceived boundaries of pop music. “Black Rainbow,” with its paired woodwinds and a bridge in which Annie’s vocals are doubled by French horn in the far reaches of its upper register, is the most orchestrally minded track, while “The Party” is almost a straightforward trip hop number. Another highlight is “The Bed”, betraying Eastern (mostly Chinese) influences in much the same way Rufus Wainwright’s “Greek Song” does while also evoking shades of George Crumb’s Black Angels string quartet.
By far, the most impressive track is the closer, “The Sequel.” It is, perhaps, the simplest of the eleven tracks that comprise Actor, but with an ascending tritone motive over sustained perfect fifths, its beauty is staggering, beginning each stanza with the tension and release that keeps this album moving forward. It is the perfect postlude to an album with such wide-ranging influences, spanning from trip hop and PJ Harvey to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “The Sequel” ties everything up in a nice little package.
I am, however, disappointed with the digipack release. There is no booklet, no lyrics, minimal credits and artwork, and, as of this writing, I have been unable to find them online. For someone like Annie Clark who is most often billed as a singer-songwriter, it would be helpful to know what she is going on about.
Despite the digipack release, with St. Vincent’s Actor, Annie Clark has firmly cemented her place among the top tier of a class of young songwriters (e.g.Chris Thile, Shara Worden, and Emilie Simon [all former music majors]) continually blurring the line between popular music and the last half-century of art music. It is no coincidence that these artists have been responsible for some of the most exciting music released in the last five years and Actor is just the most recent addition to the list. While it is certainly too early to award “Album of the Year,” Annie Clark is making a convincing case for her latest effort.