This line from St. Vincent’s song “The Bed” off the album Actor perfectly sums up the contradiction that makes the artist’s work so unsettling. As you can hear on the track, the morbid lines are delivered in a sweet, breathy voice, over a serene instrumental that could be the soundtrack to a Disney movie about woodland fairies weaving a cloak of fireflies.
So many people have written about this album already; it seems like overkill to review it again. It was one of the most critically-acclaimed “indie” albums of 2009. Guitarist and singer Annie Clark, who, along with her band, is St. Vincent, has been interviewed in many online and print publications. She has also been fawned over by indie geeks everywhere. If Playboy did a “Girls of Indie Music” pictorial, she might be the centerfold (sorry, Joanna Newsom.) Of course, they would never do that. Rats.
But, despite all of this detritus littering cyberspace, let’s add another layer to the blogosphere morass, shall we? After all, she will be playing a packed show at YuYinTang on March 13th, as part of Splitworks’ JUE Festival. So maybe you want to know something about her and her music.
Clark was the niece of traveling musicians and she often accompanied them on tour when she was a young girl. That’s how she learned to play the guitar. Flash forward a few years and she began touring with former Indie Darlings Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree. She set off on her own and recorded her debut album, entitled Marry Me. Actor is her second release and the one that has propelled her into the bright green pool of limelight. The hype is justified; Actor is a polished, chilling, ungodly gorgeous album from an artist who seems to be steadily progressing. Clark has stated in interviews that she actually “drew” the album before she ever played it. This has always confused me, but apparently she used a computer program to draw in the rhythmic and melodic parts before she actually realized them with instruments. I have never heard about this being done before, but it worked for her. For a clearer explanation, here is an email quote from the artist herself, in a piece done by The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones.
I have a precise memory of sitting in a hotel room in December of 2007 at Charles De Gaulle, absentmindedly drawing notes in on GarageBand via my laptop. No external mouse. Just me drawing notes, one by one, until they sounded how they should sound. Like a facsimile of a facsimile of music. That song became “Marrow.” Because I was not tied to my human, physical, muscular limitations (hands like to go here, ears like to hear this) I was able to make music that was smarter than I am. I sent my friend Mike Atkinson the MIDI scores and he did some cleaning up and printed them out. All new. In musical notation. A whole new language that other players could understand! A revelation! Then I learned how to play what I had written, dreamt. My hands learned the language.
Clark has has stated that she watches a lot of movies and that she thought about film scores when making Actor, especially those of Disney movies. This influence is uncannily evident throughout the album. One can picture many of the songs scoring children’s movies. It is this playful quality that makes the darker parts much eerier. The juxtaposition of “children’s” and “adult” themes is deliciously scandalous.
Many writers have called this album “enchanting.” That is an apt description, but, for me, the album is unsettling. The songs I like best seem to take atmospheric u-turns at critical junctions. My personal favorites include “The Strangers”, “Marrow”, “The Bed”, and “Actor out of Work”. When, in conventional songs we would be headed for the second verse or the bridge, instead we take a fateful step right up to the brink. You can feel the gale swirling around you and there is real danger. The lyrics do not represent your average fairy tale, more like a nightmare that sets you sweating inside a cauldron of acidic tongues.
Actor is a must-get for those who like their music to veer toward the treacherous side. St. Vincent’s show should also be a must-see, as she will be turning YuYinTang into a kaleidoscopic coven on March 13th. We can expect lots of guitar and piano, possibly played over recorded beats. I do not envision her bringing a full band, but just Annie will do.
After all, she is a saint.