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St. Vincent - Strange Mercy

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Artist: St. Vincent

Album: Strange Mercy

Label: 4AD

Review date: Sep. 13, 2011

Let this be the last time that Annie Clark’s participation in The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band is brought up. Strange Mercy, her third album as St. Vincent, is clearly of that scene, but cut from a completely separate cloth this time. Her strengths are stronger, her weaknesses pushed to the back, and her confidence as a songwriter clearly at an all-time high. And her timing couldn’t be better. Along with the recent release of Eleanor Friedberger’s Last Summer, the new St. Vincent is another noteworthy entry in a run of female-authored releases that not only answer questions about where the women in guitar rock are, but also how silly it is that Clark, Friedberger, Marissa Nadler, Frankie Rose, and plenty more aren’t spoken of in the same terms as, say, J Mascis, Thurston Moore, or even newer acts such as Zachary Cale. Let this also be the last time that any point is made about Clark’s gender.

Each subsequent St. Vincent album has provided reinforcement for earlier soft spots, and even for the hard spots. Marry Me featured a lot of wistful garden-path-skipping, particularly on the dreamy title track that shared more DNA than necessary with the likes of Norah Jones and Corinne Bailey Rae. Actor then, appropriately, acted out in the other direction, with the honking impetuousness of songs like “Marrow.” Strange Mercy has a little bit of both, but it’s not the synthesis of both sides of the coin that is most impressive. It’s how far Clark’s range actually goes, in terms of style, writing and maturity. Any semblance of preciousness is shed and replaced with a solid veneer of confidence. When she plays coy, it’s not that of a plaintive teenager anymore, but a real-deal confidence man.

The real proof of this is the four-song opening salvo. Cohesive but wildly varied, the key ingredient is the attention to guitar detail that is baked into the entire spectrum of sounds she runs through. “Chloe in the Afternoon” begins things by deconstructing the wall-of-sound approach, holding up each brick to pinpoint what makes it work and how it fits in with the next. It’s the anti-Sleigh Bells approach: instead of an overblown slurry, it’s a multi-coursed and meticulous collage of skronks and scrapes and distortions. “Cruel” then follows with an even smoother, glossier, but mildly sinister apologia that begins “Forgive the kids / for they don’t know how to live.” Tales of misdeeds trade off with heavenly preludes before leading into wailing and gnashing of guitars that are anthemic and pitiable at the same time.

It’s this kind of alternation that keeps things real good, and real unpredictable, and the best part is that it runs through and out of each song. “Cheerleader” does soft-loud-soft as well as any nu-indie rocker, but it’s even more impactful given how hard Clark hits the brakes after “Cruel.” And again, as confessional as she gets ("I’ve had good times / with some bad guys / I’ve told whole lies / with a half smile"), the song still rises in defiance come the chorus as she lays out, rather simply, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more,” letting the band serve as muscle. Fittingly, “Surgeon” lays out perhaps a more aspirational path, one that is sunnier in disposition, but just as manically meticulous. It’s on “Surgeon” that Marnie Stern’s influence is most clear, and reflecting back on the previous three songs, is from where Clark has drawn the most inspiration.

The only fault with such a strong start to an album is that it really is too strong. There is nothing wrong with the six songs that follow, but it’s difficult not to nitpick or even be let down by the flaws that prevent the kind of instant connection that Clark first makes. “Northern Lights,” for example, takes exuberance to the point of self-parody with a run of burst-balloon sound effects, and “Neutered Fruit” just middles without shifting gears. But to say that Strange Mercy runs itself out of the race wouldn’t be true. Stick with it to reach the closing “Dilettante,” which shows that she can keep it in neutral and still keep cooking. Where “Neutered Fruit” lacks a point, “Dilettante” pointedly jabs at the dabblers and the uninspired — including herself.

The song feeds into the overarching lesson from the entire album: the more Clark edits, the more she refines, the stronger St. Vincent becomes. At this point, it’s just a matter of consistency.

By Evan Hanlon

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