In the liner notes for Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous 1992 debut, the band took care to note that no synthesizers, keyboards or samples were used while recording the album. Though odd, it was actually a necessary disclaimer, as most casual listeners would have found it hard to believe that Tom Morello’s humble Strat was producing such wild sounds.
St. Vincent’s Annie Clark makes frequent use of synthesizers, keyboards and samples, but she could still use a similar disclaimer. Jagged and eruptive, Clark’s guitar parts often sound as though they’ve been painstakingly chopped up, modified and pasted back together in the studio from dozens of different takes. They haven’t been. For her ultra-intimate performance in Bob Clearmountain’s Berkeley Street studio in Santa Monica last night, the waifish Texan did it all live – unleashing perfectly placed bursts of distorted, impressionistic riffs, her face expressing Zen-like unawareness of her own playing until she would abruptly knock herself backwards with a loud squall.
Recorded for an October broadcast on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” the show was partly a record-release party for St. Vincent’s third album, “Strange Mercy.” Long a critical darling, Clark has mounted quite a publicity blitz in the lead-up to this record: There was last month’s Spin cover, a “Letterman” appearance, and the announcements of an upcoming collaborative album with David Byrne and a song for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” Whether her idiosyncratic music can find a mainstream fit is very much an open question, but for the first time she has a record capable of reaching far beyond the Pitchfork crowd.
For my part, I found Clark’s previous albums, 2007’s “Marry Me” and 2009’s “Actor,” something like the art-pop equivalent of a Faulkner novel. You knew there was great story in there somewhere, and individual passages could be breathtaking, but the attempts to impress with contrived complexity sometimes swallowed those strengths in a cold, constipated sort of muddle.
On “Strange Mercy,” Clark has learned how to tell a simple story, narratively as well as musically. Starting her nine-song set with “Cheerleader,” she sang: “I’ve had good times with some bad guys / I’ve told whole lies with a half smile,” a character description almost Cheever-like in its understatement. And the opener’s straightforwardness carried through elsewhere. Clark can still catch her audience unaware – as she did with the sludge-metal guitar intrusions on “Chloe in the Afternoon” – but the effect was more playful than confrontational. Unprecedentedly poppy single “Cruel” was practically begging for a dance remix, and “Year of the Tiger” took what first seemed a clichéd kung-fu-flick theme and developed it into a low-key anthem.
The show closed with a truly savage version of “Surgeon,” a slow-burner that nodded to Debussy’s “La mer” and Bjork’s “Pagan Poetry” in equal measure. The song coasted along on a barely-there melody at first, with a fluttering guitar riff introducing a note of threat in the choruses. Clark was busy shifting the capo up and down her guitar neck throughout, as that simple figure moved across various keys and intensity levels, ending in a pulse-heightening crescendo that felt as unexpected as it was inevitable.
It seemed to sum up the guiding principle of both the show and the album: Just because a song is simple doesn’t mean it has to stand still.
Photo: Jeremiah Garcia