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“Actor,” the second album by St. Vincent, was released in 2009 by 4AD Records, a studio that has recorded artists such as Bon Iver, Blonde Redhead, and Camera Obscura.
The songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist, Annie Clark (a former member of the Polyphonic Spree) composed this album using the Apple recording software, Garageband. Despite this, the arrangements throughout the album are lush and beautifully complex.
The band is comprised of many different instruments, ranging from the electric guitar to violin, flute, timpani, clarinet, saxophone, and piano that contribute to the depth and texture of this album.
At first listen, the melodies are reminiscent of classic Disney fairy tale movies, full of delicate trills and grand crescendos. As it progresses, however, there grows a subtle, yet disconcerting, feeling of uncertainty and maybe even a hint of danger (all served with whipped cream and sprinkles-which is to say Annie’s sweet voice-on top).
What is great about this album is such a paradoxical approach: juxtaposing something seemingly safe and familiar with undercurrents of churning angst, thanks to her fantastic ability to shred the guitar to pieces. Just when I think I understand the intent of one song, the tone changes and the vapor of understanding is gone; it’s very ghost-like. Annie Clark commands all aspects of these dark narratives with a gently eerie voice that is, at once, pleasing and unsettling. Somehow, it expresses an other-worldly fashion. The subjects and moods with which we are all too familiar here on Earth, leaving us with the startling feeling of waking up from one of those intense falling-from-a-cliff dreams.
The album opens with spectral notes “oohed and aaahed” by a chorus that leads into a chime-filled song titled, “The Strangers” that asks questions we all ask ourselves at some point in romantic relationships: “What do I share? What do I keep from all the strangers who sleep where I sleep?” She concludes that she must “paint the black hole blacker.” This seems to impress upon listeners the feeling the rest of the album will create, one of simultaneous paranoia and beauty.
The songs vary from mostly woodwind and string arrangements to primarily electric guitar-focused pieces. The mood and emotion of each song become tangible yet subtle things thanks to such variations. For instance, the single “Actor Out of Work” is an unflinching wall of sound that does not wait to begin.
From the beginning notes, the distorted, buzzing guitar as well as relentless drums pair with Annie’s assault on the actor in question to end up with a stinging interrogation: “You’re a supplement, you’re a salve / You’re a bandage, pull it off /I can quit you, cut it out / You’re a patient iron lung.” Whoever this is, they are a crutch, an unnecessary thing. She resigns at the end of the song, however: “I think I love you, I think I’m mad.” Her calm, taunting delivery paired with delicious riffs and a catchy chorus makes for an oddly addictive view of an unhealthy but thriving relationship.
Other highlights of the record include the song “Marrow,” another tune that surprises and delights with its sudden appearance of raunchy guitar through the plea “Help me.” Many songs on this album seem to be performed from the perspective of women who feel they are trapped by their daily lives, trying to make sense of and express themselves through the patterns of unsatisfactory complacency and suppressed anger.
There is still a sentimental side to the journey as seen in the lyrics of “The Party.” Paired with gentle, jazzy guitar strums and a gorgeous violin and flute, this song is a bit more tender than the others.
St. Vincent is pure musicianship. After a few listens it becomes clear that “Actor” is an album full of characters that were painstakingly created with precise idiosyncrasies that make them relatable and, in a way, real. Rock guitarists will be more than pleased with what they experience as they listen, as well as those who are turned on by more orchestral arrangements. There are no predictable progressions or recycled expressions. It is certainly an album that is in constant rotation as I paint, drive, or just sit and listen. St. Vincent is releasing a new album titled Strange Mercy on September 13th. I can’t wait to see what Annie does next.
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