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Concert Review: St. Vincent Previews New Album at Paramount Backlot Show

Annie Clark — a.k.a. the Oklahoma-born, Texas-raised guitar-slinger and pop conceptualist known as St. Vincent — thinks big and acts accordingly. To promote the Oct. 13 release of her fifth album, “Masseduction” and upcoming “Fear the Future” tour, she performed a multi-media concert Saturday night on the New York back lot of the Paramount Studios as part of the ongoing, month-long Red Bull Music Academy Festival L.A.

Resplendent in a hot-pink, strapless bodysuit and thigh-high boots, Clark stood alone (a presumed backing band lurking out of sight) in front of a blank curtain, below a minimum of spotlights, for the first part, in which she offered a chronological overview of her career, starting with the mock serenity of the title track “Marry Me” and the techno sheen of “Now Now” (both from her 2007 debut) through the distorted blues licks of “Digital Witness,” the sing-song beats and angular crunchy guitars of “Rattlesnake” and the gnarled melodies and grungy power chords of “Birth in Reverse,” all from her last, self-titled album in 2014.  “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” (both from 2011’s “Strange Mercy”) received the biggest crowd reactions, while the title track from that album was performed in front of a giant caricature of Clark with mouth agape looking like a cross between Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” and Macaulay Culkin in “Home Alone.”

That exhibition of seven years and four (now five) albums places Clark in a notable group of young headliners who can combine classic rock riffs with the large-screen dynamics of electronic music, equal parts distinctive vocalist, guitar hero and one-person DJ.

After a short break,  she returned in a silver halter top and hip-hugging skirt for a front-to-back performance of the new album, a first-person, autobiographical meditation on modern romance, sexual power, loneliness, isolation, drugs, media saturation and the search for eternal youth.

The new songs are accompanied by giant images from the videos shot by Willo Perron for the album’s first two singles, paeans to “New York” and Los Ageless,” written with Sleater-Kinney’s “Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein. The opener, “Hang on Me,” features Clark’s voice as the ghost in a bass-heavy machine, while “Pills” is performed in front of sped-up stills of Clark doing media rounds in front of TV cameras, primped by assistants. The title track, “Masseduction,” is a funky “Fame”-style tale with an ironic view of modern technology, accompanied by a clip of someone smashing a receiver into the cradle of an old-fashioned touch-tone phone which turns out to be a cake.  Clark has learned her lessons well from former collaborator David Byrne in presenting a combination of wide-eyed innocence and sly sarcasm.

“Sugarboy” floats on shimmering beats underlined by industrial white noise, with its plea for human interaction. “I am a lot like you/I am alone like you.” She acknowledges her surroundings before performing “Los Ageless,” noting, “This one’s for you guys,” its thumping beat and repeating chorus, “How could anybody have you and lose you?” set against images of women wrapped for plastic surgery, simultaneously poking fun and indulging the city’s obsession with vanity and appearances.

“Happy Birthday Johnny” is a sweet ode to her adopted hometown with references to walking in Times Square one summer amid an elegiac wash of horns, while “Savior” has a Memphis blues again feel to its tale of romantic obsession, with a video featuring Annie watching a television with a pair of women’s legs dangling out of it.

“New York,” which she’s described as a tribute to the late David Bowie, is one of the album’s set pieces, a big, U2-styled anthem with the tart refrain, “You’re the only motherf—er in the city who can stand me,” as Annie’s pictured dancing on piano keys a la Tom Hanks in “Big” in the accompanying projection.

“Fear the Future,” which doubles as the tour moniker, is an ominous, pre-apocalyptic, “Helter Skelter” type glimpse into the abyss, segueing into “Young Love,” which boasts a Brill Building shine, highlighted by Annie’s wordless scatting to end it.  Soaring strings introduce “Slow Disco,” and the closing “Smoking Section” offers an eternal “to be or not to be” conundrum with the taunting admonition, “Let it happen/let it happen.”

While Clark’s deliberate faux sincerity fit perfectly with the artificiality of performing in a fake city on a backlot in Hollywood, hitting a crowd with a large amount of brand-new material is always risky, and tonight’s performance didn’t necessarily leave the crowd in the rapturous state the material had earned. Still, by the time St. Vincent hits her stride – and the new songs gain some traction — the upcoming “Fear the Future” tour should live up to its creator’s grand design and impressive ambition.

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