St. Vincent, live at the Somerville Theatre, May 19, 2009
There were not one but two clarinets on stage at the Somerville Theatre on Tuesday night, and that gives you some idea of how intricate Annie Clark's chamber-pop compositions can be. She's been mining this vein of indie rock for some time now. Before releasing her solo debut under the name St. Vincent in July 2007, she played with Sufjan Stevens's touring band — which is really more like a touring orchestra. Those two clarinets shared space with a saxophone, a violin, and a flute. Her mic stand even sported two microphones. It looked like a divining rod.
This was the first performance of a five-week tour in support of her new Actor (4AD). She used all the charm at her disposal to chase away the opening-night jitters, and it seemed to work —though it's not as if Somerville twentysomethings were going to give her grief over a few missed cues. Dimpled college students (like myself), a few old hippies, scattered moms and dads — this was not a very threatening crowd. "I love you!" one woman sighed between songs, but not like a come-on. It sounded as if she had only just realized it herself.
Clark says she wrote Actor on GarageBand, and the album does have the feel of something composed from up close. Her melodies aren't master plans; they're more like an assortment of beads on a string, and she makes you pay attention to each one. That meant a daunting task for the four guys playing behind her as a band. They did loosen up some as the evening went on, but there were songs — "The Strangers," for one — where they didn't even sound as if they knew each other. (But do they secretly compete for Clark's love?)
The best sounds of the night came out of Clark's guitar. Her records don't tell you what an inspired noisemaker she can be; when she took to the whammy bar and opened up the distortion pedal, it was transformative. I still don't understand exactly how she starts to move when launching into one of these solos — she looked animatronic, or as if someone had touched jumper cables to her joints. Most of the time, St. Vincent rests comfortably in the indie mainstream, but here Clark revealed herself as a bit of a closet avant-gardist.
There's a difference between noise and wrong notes, however, and Clark wants nothing to do with wrong notes. I think it might be a good idea to let some in. Her band spent a long, long time tuning between songs; that added to precision but subtracted from surprise. Sometimes her music is too locked down, too perfectly patterned. She sounds best when she's getting away from herself.
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