Album Review: St. Vincent – Actor

I have had a rocky past with female rock and roll artists that, I believe, was a product of growing up in the 90’s.  I always had a seething hatred for female alternative bands like Hole, No Doubt, L7, Veruca Salt, etc.  That list could go on forever (although I did enjoy Garbage’s first record a lot).  I also had no love for the Lilith Fair crowd, as it always seemed to my underdeveloped teenage mind to be some sort of false granola “empowerment” thing for ladies in Birkenstocks.  In retrospect, however, I would gladly listen to Sarah McLachlan and Co. sing about their vaginas all day rather than have to endure the painfully shallow “Sex and the City” culture that exists today.  Lastly, we had the quirky weirdo chicks, like Bjork, Tori Amos, and Portishead.  Nothing in their music was particularly appealing to a teenage boy, and they were also kind of frightening.  Sure, it all looks a bit sexist when revisited from my current vantage point, but them’s the facts.  I remained for a long time fairly averse to female musicians of any kind, and I’m sure I missed a fair amount of solid music because of my youthful biases.

Well, here’s me, all growned up now with much more diverse tastes and a willingness to explore music from anybody, regardless of gender.  I suppose this grew out of my self-induced musical education, which involved listening to lots of great rock, pop, and r&b from previous decades.  The discovery of the great women of popular music’s past opened me up to accepting the new contributions that women continue to make to the musical landscape.  I’m glad that I’ve gotten over my unfair negative gender stereotype, because if I hadn’t, I never would have heard St. Vincent’s latest record, Actor.  And that would be a crime.  Against my ears.  Because they likey.

St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, crafts slightly disjointed pop that can change on a dime mid-song, and she borrows from several interesting cultural and musical sources to create some extremely affecting pop music.  In my mind, Clark seems to be having a musical conversation with TV On The Radio, answering last year’s Dear Science with an argument of her own in Actor.  Both artists are indebted to David Bowie, with St. Vincent’s “Save Me From What I Want” echoing Bowie’s “Golden Years”, while several other songs work in minimalist elements from the Berlin Trinity.  Also on display is Clark’s affinity for world music, which she artfully peppers into songs like “The Strangers”, which features a lilting Parisian accordion, and “The Bed”, which rides a vaguely Asian melody.  Tying all of these elements together is Clark’s steady, soothing voice, like that of a schoolteacher, which serves as an excellent anchor through the sometimes jarring arrangements.

And, in almost every case, those arrangements are killer.  This is a purposefully disjointed record, and many of the elements play off of each other to make for unsteady and arresting moments.  Clark’s aforementioned voice always remains on an even keel, even when most of her lyrics feature women in some form of emotional distress.  The soft, lullaby melodies in many tracks, such as “The Strangers” and “The Neighbors”, are often interrupted by blaring horns and quick tempo shifts.  The beautiful flute driven melody of “Black Rainbow” is capped off by a key-shifting crescendo ending that abruptly drops out to end the song.  Clark obviously has a lot of ideas, but the songs never come off as overstuffed.  Instead, we get tight songs with unpredictable and sometimes messy structures, once again showcasing the record’s inherent contradictions.

Actor is a fine album, and I am continually impressed with a lot of the music that has been coming out in 2009.  I must also offer an apology to the ladies of rock for my ill-advised shunning of their efforts as a result of teenage ignorance.  Women have plenty to contribute to popular music, and if they keep producing music like St. Vincent’s Actor, I will keep on singing their praises.  I still hate Hole, though.

St. Vincent – “Actor Out of Work”


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