The opening strains of woodwinds and ethereal voices that introduce “The Strangers” – the opening track Actor, Annie Clark’s music nom de plume St. Vincent’s second record, sounds a lot like it could be the introduction to a new Stereolab record. But once the the precise computer kick drum and arpeggiated acoustic guitars join in, under that lovely voice of hers, there’s no mistaking this for Stereolab. And then, at just past the 2 minute mark, when the massively fuzzed out guitars slink their way into the mix, eventually joined by a full kit (that could be a real drummer or could be a well mixed continuation of the beats), it’s clear that we back in for round two of Annie’s musical vision.
On Actor, Clark manages to pull of the neat trick of sounding much like her previous record, 2007’s Marry Me, while tightening up her sound and songwriting… making it a progression and not just more of the same.
A skilled guitar player/singer/songwriter, much has been made of Clark’s stints in The Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens and (most interesting to me at least) Glenn Branca’s 100 Guitar Orchestra, so I won’t delve into it here. But as much as I dug Marry Me, it did seem like, overall, she tried to fit a few too many ideas into too small an area. I really dug the album, but only “Paris Is Burning” stuck with me – and that tune may have too many ideas going on in it as well.
On Actor she still manages to indulge in her prog and complicated proclivities, but she does a much better time hiding them and disguising them as pop songs. Check out her video for the record’s first official single, “Actor Out Of Work,” below:
Short and sweet. I’ve seen a recent review of the record that claimed “Actor Out Of Work” is the only real single possibility, but I strongly disagree. “Save Me” is pretty alluring, what with it’s bare bones drums and multitracked Annie vocal chorus of “save me, save me, save me from what I want.” And the previously mentioned opening track, “The Stranger” is ornamented with Annie backing herself up with the line that gave today’s column it’s title. Not that everything need be an easily digestable pop single. “Black Rainbow” ends with a very ominous and forboding march of woodwinds, strings and more fuzzed out guitar, building and building till it’s cathartic, sudden end.
Actually, one of the neatest tricks Annie pulls off on this record is one of instrumentation… woodwinds and strings and her various guitars all take their spots comfortably along with some mellotrons and light organs and pianos, fleshing out the songs without calling attention to themselves. There are really no solos of anykind, but there are many ensemble features of melodic invention. There’s very little “riffing” or merely holding down the chords via guitars/keys – very rare these days outside of the classical or jazz worlds. Yet there is nothing on the record that could be mistaken for classical or jazz. For example, an ethereal choir (which could be multi tracked annies or could be a choral patch on a mellotron) fit along side fuzzed bass guitar and some nice interplay with saxophones and clarinets, with more trilling strings and woodwinds on “Help Me” making for an intoxicating sound that is catchy but not typical radio fare.
If there would be criticism I would level on the record it would be that the production is maybe a bit too nice – despite those fuzzed out guitar moments – and, more than too nice, too similar from song to song. Every instrument has it’s place and takes up no more space, which while a very cool trick, means that, from track to track, all the tunes can tend to blend together. Not quite as much as on a Sufjan Stevens release, but a similar sort of vibe. And it would be nice to hear a few moments that didn’t sound as calculated as really every moment on the album does sound. Sort of like tracks I’ve seen online of her solo shows, where her loops quickly go out of time with the song but she still incorporates it:
or this, from a Paris music blog, of her playing the aforementioned “Paris Is Burning” from her solo debut Marry Me in a park in Paris:
Still, though the album may sound a bit too perfect, after a few listens it’s considerable charms open up. Possibly my favorite release of 2009 thus far…