Annie in Wonderland

St. Vincent gives an otherworldly performance on Actor
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  October 21, 2009

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INTENSE VISIONARY Annie Clark a/k/a St. Vincent.

There wasn't much to know about St. Vincent when I first happened upon her in concert, in the middle of July 2007. A song or two and some basic facts -- classically-trained guitarist, former member of the Polyphonic Spree, part of Sufjan Stevens's back-up band -- fluttered around the blogosphere before her debut album, Marry Me (Beggars Banquet), came out that August. Happening upon her set at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge, performed to a crowd of about 50, was one of those rare occurrences of seeing a star in the making, already fully-formed in a commanding, and elusive, persona.

She -- Annie Clark in real life -- wore siren-red lipstick and had a wild mane of curly black hair, looking like the love interest in a Tim Burton movie. Her huge brown eyes seemed to penetrate and transfix everyone in the crowd, all at once. She wielded a sparkly electric guitar, and had a mannequin arm attached to her microphone stand, which initiated drum-machine claps when she smacked it. Clark's beatific soprano clashed with her ferocious guitar technique, alternating between lush fingerpicking and churning riffs. They morphed into haunting maelstroms of punk cabaret with the assistance of a slew of pedals at her feet, as her lyrics -- "Marry me, John, I'll be so good to you/You won't realize I've gone" -- confused and beguiled.

Eight months of incessant touring and unanimous acclaim for Marry Me later, Clark returned to the Middle East, selling out its large downstairs venue well in advance. Boston frat bros screamed the obvious -- "Marry me, Annie!" -- and Clark seemed genuinely stunned by the adulation. After releasing another, even more successful album -- the bold Actor, released this spring on 4AD -- and while preparing for her current tour with Andrew Bird, which comes to the South Portland Auditorium on Saturday, she still does.

"It really, really surprises me still. People know the words to this song?" Clark said over the phone a few weeks ago. "I was lucky enough to get to go on tour a whole lot -- I supported Midlake, Jolie Holland, [and] John Vanderslice before [Marry Me] came out. You kind of get a thick skin . . . an underdog mentality. 'Go out there and give it your best, kid' . . . I [still] feel like I'm very much coming from that point of view."

That thick skin is inherent in Clark's alternate personality as St. Vincent, where her lyrics can turn on a dime from vulnerable to malevolent. Marry Me's sweet-and-sour title track is followed by "Paris is Burning," an intoning bit of post-apocalyptic grime with the punchline "Come sit right here/And sleep while I slip poison in your ear." The torch-song ballad after that, "All My Stars Aligned," is disarmingly earnest and, at moments ("What was your question?/Love is the answer"), even saccharine.

Her new album, Actor, is at once more blunt and more obfuscated than her debut. On the opening track, "The Strangers," Clark sings, "What do I share?/What do I keep?/From all the strangers who sleep where I sleep," and a backup chorus suggests she "paint a black hole blacker." The songs, inspired by films by everyone from Walt Disney to Sergio Leone and Terrence Malick, are radically composed, each a unique and unhinged, chaotic home for her stifled protagonists.

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