Wednesday, September 7, 2011

St. Vincent: Strange Mercy

Annie Clark's band is the recipient of two previous Robin's Album of the Year awards for their two previous albums, the amazing Marry Me and Actor. Can they make it 3/3?

Let's do this.

The cover: Um, what happened to the "Annie's face on the cover" theme from the previous two albums? I thought they were excellent. All I can think of when I look at this is "dental dam."

01. Chloe in the Afternoon
Eerie and creepy pop, just how I like it. Sandpaper guitars.The sound of eels swimming through underwater electric fences, and I love that bell sound. The chorus is super catchy (like get-out-of-my-head catchy), and it goes from the normal stutter-step to an even more skittery beat with almost no groove. I would really like it if this track grooved a bit more, actually. The end of the album points us in the direction of the rest: Get ready to get uncomfortable. Who is Chloe? And what is she doing in the afternoon? If you know, please tell me. 4 stars.

02. Cruel
Apparently this is the single, and I guess it makes sense. It "sounds" like St. Vincent. The old Disney-movie-orchestration at the beginning, the pretty-meets-awkward sound, and the two different beat changes sell it. The guitar line has a great corroded elastic sound here. It's about objectification and dehumanization, maybe of women but not necessarily, and the kicker is this line:
They could take or leave you/So they took you/Then they left you
Heck yeah. 4 stars.

03. Cheerleader
An instant St. Vincent masterpiece. It is sexy, unsettling, and I love the lyrics: "I've seen America/with no clothes on." Yes. And that chorus!! The huge electric dinosaur thumps! The uplifting pseudo-chorus near the end! If this doesn't make you feel raised up and doesn't make you vow to quit compromising, then you have no heart. 5 stars.

04. Surgeon
A fantastic lead-in from Cheerleader leads to a minimalist beat and instrument riff. It's creative, but not brilliant. Fun opening lyric: "I spent the summer on my back..." This album definitely seems to deal with sex in a more frank manner than previous albums. Annie always hints at sexuality with a wink, but it's much stronger here. The comparison between sex and surgery in a failing relationship (or an affair, maybe?) is powerful, and makes the beat feel even more like a, uh, push-and-pull, if you will. And THEN we hear the best 80s guitar (keyboard?) solo of the year near the end, as it builds toward climax. Yeah. 4 stars.

05. Northern Lights
We start with a straightforward rocker that holds promise, but I tire of the guitar solo/lick that serves as a lyric line. Annie's a guitar virtuoso, but this line feels a little grating. Like a lot of experimental or groundbreaking artists, St. Vincent can make songs sound like any moment they are going to fly apart, and this has varying degrees of effect. Here, it just sounds like things are breaking up and dissolving in an anxious, unpleasant way. Also, I don't like her use of the term 'champagne year' in the song. 2.5 stars.

06. Strange Mercy
This straight and solid, gentle beginning is such a great contrast to the craziness of the end of Northern Lights...does that make the previous track better? Is it a classic example of the whole being better than the sum of its parts? Does that shake the very foundation on which this music review blog is built? Let's not follow this line of questioning further. The 1/8 note ticks keep this song moving and subtly moving forward, and at first I think I am in for a good (but not great) track. The guitar sound (man, she really does some awesome stuff with guitar effects on this album, yeah?) is haunting, and the overall feeling is sad. This is especially true when the ticking stops and the finger-picking starts. Oh, my heart! The sound of a late, lonely, helpless night. But then, at around 2:50, the power and resolve begin, and it is sheer beauty. The "Lost boys" line from earlier in the song that sounded sad and empathetic earlier now sounds like a threat, and it is glorious. In the end, all is still sad, and we must drive ourselves home alone with tears on our cheeks. 5 stars. 

07. Neutered Fruit
I've liked these fake, funky synth chorus effects ever since they blew my mind on OK Computer years ago. They open up this track and instantly set me squirming. St. Vincent love to make us feel unsure and uncomfortable. That's some of the appeal, really--the awkwardness juxtaposed with (and sometimes redeemed by) later beauty and darkness. Except...I don't think this track brings the beauty or the darkness enough. Yeah, it's pretty and meditative, but I can tell a St. Vincent build-up, overused on this album, is coming later. And it does, and it sounds like someone running up the stairs. And it's still a bit uncomfortable sounding. Strangely non-impactful. 3 stars.

08. Champagne Year
Let's get this out of the way: I really dislike the reuse of the term "Champagne Year" (from Northern Lights). It's a nice, ambient track, but it's not pretty enough or weird enough to keep me from feeling a little bored. Annie's voice is as beautiful as always--I almost feel like it would work better a cappella. The lyrics lift it up a bit, and (I think) present a snapshot of broken idealism and unrealistic goals unfulfilled. Still, 3 stars.

09. Dilettante
I love this title for St. Vincent - it just seems like it fits perfect. How about the song? Well, Champagne Year leads into it perfectly, but then it's a little more of the same: A minimal, slowly-paced track with some affected guitar lines that serve as co-vocal lines. Thankfully the fuller and more emotive ending (here it is again) saves it from being just an "alright" song, almost like it's fulfilling the emptiness of the first half. 4 stars.

10. Hysterical Strength
Jeez, talk about an uncomfortable-sounding start, and then...rollicking and rampaging! Highlight lyric: "It's not your beast to leash/don't hold more than you can stand to carry." Definitely goes along with the dominate out-of-control sound of the album. Hey, is this a bonus track? It sounds like one, like it's not really supposed to be on the main album. Definitely one of my least favorite St. Vincent songs. Oh, surprise! Another full, crazy ending after a more sparse beginning! I'm sorry, Annie, I still love you. 3 stars.

11. Year of the Tiger
I am so incredibly happy that they're ending strong. This song is both pretty and powerful, a non-experimental solid strummer about growing up. There is strong irony between the fear of the narrator and the repeated word "tiger". A perfectly depressing closer. 5 stars.

The Final Word: Strange Mercy has some gems on it and it definitely sounds like a St. Vincent album. Unfortunately it doesn't come close to the power of their first two. Hopefully this is a delayed sophomore slump, and we'll see more of the high points of this album later on. Perhaps Annie Clark is getting a bit too daring with her sound, and is losing the pop that holds it together. Perhaps she is tired from touring or social circumstances and it is creating cracks in the music; the erratic sound would certainly suggest as such. Or perhaps it's just a simple misstep. Hopefully it's the latter. Overall, still worth a listen or two.
Standout Tracks: Cheerleader, Strange Mercy

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