Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Paris Four Hundred: St. Vincent's Marry Me

This review appears in this week's Wireless Bollinger.

St. Vincent is Annie Clark, a singer-songwriter who has played on stage as part of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers. Such connections make a solo album seem almost inevitable in a side-project saturated scene, but Clark’s Marry Me is an album that’s distinctly hers.

Opener "Now, Now" glides smoothly with Clark’s assured delivery, but eventually approaches a cacophony. Guitar squalls combine with a backup chorus that insists, “You don’t mean that/Say you’re sorry.” "Jesus Saves, I Spend" continues these contributions, with the voices offering a steady “Bom bom bom” backbone. Clarke offsets the repetition by intoning such eloquent lines as, “I’m sitting and sculpting/Menageries of saints.”

"Your Lips Are Red" is a more intense track, with more frantic guitar lines and Clark’s dreamy delivery wavering towards something a bit sharper. Meanwhile, the album’s title track is elegantly simple, with Clark singing, “Marry me John/I’ll be so good to you,” amidst handclaps. "Paris Is Burning" uses an imagined tragedy for a more personal crisis, as Clark sings of slipping “poison in your ear.” While the second half doesn’t quite match the first in distinctness, taken as a whole, this is a very impressive album.

Marry Me is dramatic in the best way, using enough theatrical elements to keep the listener interested, while still keeping the spotlight on Clark. The instrumentation is varied, as are the moods. The tension between straightforward, almost naïve romanticism and more insidious, occasionally alarming, sentiments is fascinating. Clark’s songwriting is as unique as it is versatile, as she’s equally comfortable describing fanciful scenes or deeply personal moments. The result is far more complex than many of Clark’s fellow singers.

Despite the complexity of its songs, Marry Me is never unwieldy. Those that enjoy the work purely as a collection of appealing, if unconventional, pop songs can’t go wrong. Clark’s voice is deft, shifting from an airy swoon to a darker whisper, sometimes within the same song. While the music ranges from mechanized percussion to orchestral embellishments, her vocals bind the eclectic elements into a mesmerizing experience.

Success in today’s industry can seem incredibly arbitrary. Even the most tenuous connections can elevate an unknown into prominence through vague name recognition. Clark’s association with relatively successful groups was clearly beneficial to her own career, but upon hearing the album it’s apparent that her past experiences have served as a foundation of a sound that’s been meticulously developed. The Polyphonic Spree’s inflated membership comes to mind when one considers how much stuff is going on throughout Marry Me. And Sufjan Stevens’ ability to meld his own life with the events of disparate places has also clearly been passed on to Clark.

Although such comparisons are inevitable at this stage of her career, if Clark maintains the high quality of Marry Me on future work, it’s just as likely that she’ll be the benchmark for up-and-coming artists. Until then, her debut album will be a template for how to branch out, while still staying attached to your roots.
MySpace: St. Vincent
Official Site: St. Vincent

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