Saturday, March 17, 2018

Things we like: St. Vincent

1) Recently seen in the comments to a Prince video on Youtube: "Prince was such a great guitarist, he could have had a great career in rock, if he hadn't wasted himself on pop." Sigh.

2) Is Annie Clark the new Bowie/Prince or what? Her music is that ambitious, her persona that big.

3) I'll admit that I first became interested in her music because the 1967 Harmony Bobkat she played on Strange Mercy reminded me of my old Harmony Silvertone 1478 Silhouette (the "one that got away" in my Blogger profile pic, since reished with better pickups and a Bigsby). It made my heart glad to know that she was playing vintage, rather than a custom job. And that someone who actually knew how to play could light up the strings on such an axe so brilliantly. (She now has a signature Ernie Ball Music Man guitar.)

4) A muso friend whose opinion I respect recently purchased the entire St. Vincent catalog. "It's amazing," he said. "This music even has harmonic movement. Is there anybody else out there like this? (Don't respond if you don't know what 'harmonic movement' is.)" We recently followed suit. He'd listened to her albums chronologically, but we're not those people, so we slipped in her second, Actor, and had our synapses zapped with gorgeous indie psychedelia replete with beguiling melodies and, yes, honest-to-goodness chord changes, swimming against the tide of this age of drone 'n' groove. "Will wonders never cease?" we marveled.

5) As Iggy said, "Break it down": St. Vincent is a pop figure, one whose presentation is based on an ever-more stylized persona. Yet, she's also her own boss -- she calls her own shots, writes her own tunes, is less akin to your stereotypical autotuned diva with multiple writers and producers than she is to brainy art-rockers like Bowie, Eno, and David Byrne, with whom she collaborated on 2012's Love This Giant. I think it's possible that the social media teapot tempest over Mr. Byrne's failure to include any women on his subsequent collabs project could be down to Annie scaring the bejeezus out of him. My wife thinks working with Annie "humanized" him a bit, and I suspect it might have given her songwriting a kick in the ass. (The sonic palette she employs on my favorite album of hers, the self-titled one from 2014, is basically the same as the one from Strange Mercy, but with more immediately arresting songs. Although you can't mess with "Cruel." And "Cheerleader.")

6) Her work process while composing can be hermetic, and in her current live show, she's the only performer who appears onstage.

7) I need a few more spins -- maybe in the car, my "deep listening space" these days -- to get friendly with her newie, MASSEDUCTION. There's nothing I've heard so far that jumps out and grabs me, but it's nice to have a performer whose work can require focus and attention to get next to. (Which reminds me, we're overdue for a "deep" listen to Laurie Anderson's newie with the Kronos Quartet.)

8) Is the title character of MASSEDUCTION's "Happy Birthday Johnny" the same as the previous album's "Prince Johnny?" Their circumstances sound quite different, but someone who could see himself in Jim Carroll, take a fix and set his room on fire might also be capable of extorting a piece of the Berlin Wall -- to snort. One wonders.

9) Listening to her albums from 2007's Marry Me up to St. Vincent in sequence, you can hear an artist steadily gaining assurance and control. The backing on the debut seems cluttered and obtrusive compared to the self-titled record, even when the latter-day musos are playing flashier stuff. (Bobby Sparks' Minimoog is particularly crucial.) The glossy electronic sheen of St. Vincent's instrumental backing -- bass-heavy, in the modern way, everything mixed louder than everything else -- sets the human frailty of her voice in striking relief. So when she tops a Bo Diddley beat with synth squiggles before intoning "BringmeyourlovesallyourlovesIwannalovethemtooyaknow," you figure she means it.

10) Some of the St. Vincent tracks that initially elicited Prince comparisons ("Birth in Reverse" and "Digital Witness" in particular) now seem as redolent of Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder. "Icy funk" might seem like an oxymoron, but don't tell those damned clever Euros.

11) "I Prefer Your Love" (" Jesus") sounded like the ultimate answer song to "Belle" at first. Then I read it's about her mother, which explains "All the good in me is because of you." What parent wouldn't appreciate hearing that?

12) Right now, the song of hers that resonates the most with me is "Severed Crossed Fingers," with its lyrics about trying to find hope where there's none -- a worthwhile undertaking these days. I have no idea what she's literally singing about, but it doesn't matter. The personal can be universal. How fortunate are we.


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