by / November 15th, 2011 /

St. Vincent – Dublin

Last time Annie Clark was in town almost two years ago, she was alone. She played a short solo set to a half-full Vicar St. as the warm up act for Grizzly Bear. On that night she was stunning, coming with a bag full of songs fresh from her second album Actor. Her incredible musical chops were to the fore, with guitar loops underpinning an angelic voice delivering constant, undeniable hooks. In many ways it was the sparseness of the set that really made it work; robbed of her usual touring band and forced to re-jig the songs by herself, the intricate structures were peeled back somewhat and the melodic heart of the songs were all the more prominent. The set seemed remove the layers of complication that Clark builds up around herself and her songs and gave her room to breathe.

This time around, things are very different. Now touring on the back of her wildly successful third album Strange Mercy, the Button Factory played host to the complete St. Vincent show in full force. Four-piece backing band, intense light show, an album’s worth of new songs and of course, Clark herself, in her all-singing, all-shredding glory. Opening with the swirling synth chords of ‘Surgeon’, lead single off Strange Mercy, it’s clear it’s going to be a big, brash show. The bass is very much in your face, drums are staccato and Clark floats over the top of it all. The main riff comes and goes, before the wailing crescendo comes in to finish it. More songs follow from the new album, ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Cruel’ and ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ being some highlights. By the end, most, if not all, tracks from Strange Mercy get a rendition. They are, in general, faithful to their recorded counterparts, with the increase in volume providing the main difference. The musicians are all incredibly tight, as you’d expect of anyone playing with Clark, but there’s an intense feeling of restraint at all times.

This tight rein is let slip on just a couple of occasions, each to wondrous effect. A cover of The Pop Group’s ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil’ is the most obvious and cathartic of the bunch as the drums fall into a true, danceable groove for the first time while Clark’s hugely distorted chords ring out and the bass gets your feet itching to move. It is slightly more straight-forward than the original and hits all that much harder for it. It is the first real example of the band utilising space and they revel in their new found freedom. Clark’s own compositions are tightly-controlled structures in constant flux, confidently put together to express a nervous disposition, so this post-punk looseness arrives feeling like a breath of fresh air.

There are other moments of release, the screaming on ‘Year Of The Tiger’ and her theremin solo for instance, each of which bring a sense of bodily engagement with the music, each reaching out to the audience and grabbing them by the scruffs of their far-from-reluctant necks. This is not what St. Vincent is about 95% of the time though, and the question of whether these moments of unbounded noise and joy would work without the long passages of taut anxiety is difficult to answer. It’s a difficult juxtaposition, and that may well be the point. St. Vincent has always reveled in unease, and with Strange Mercy, that sense of awkwardness reaches new levels. Even Clark’s blink and you’ll miss it stage-dive (more of a stage-stagger-and-fall really) at the end seems contrived, over before it starts.

The music is always tense and intricate, bouncing from free jazz to some sort of baroque bubblegum pop with no particular technical trouble, but the sweetness of the vocals and the odd hook just serves to make it feel even weirder. All these elements come even more to the fore in the live situation, as it becomes aggressively loud and the lights make it seem darker than the surface music would suggest. Was this enjoyable? It’s a tough one to call. The talent is there in spades and contrivance is not always a bad thing but Clark is a difficult figure to get close to, to understand or empathise with. If she can learn to step out from behind her own walls, we might be privy something truly spectacular, a formidable talent unleashed. For now, we’ll have to be content with what she wants us to see, hear and feel. That will be enough for most.

Photos: Damien McGlynn.
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  • Barry

    Nail on the head. Great review

  • Kindofken

    great gig her voice is amazing sound was excellent

  • Penguin

    What gig were you at?! Seriously. She absolutely took the roof off the place! It was a truly phenomenal gig. 

    What a frustratingly misguided review. Why do some reviewers seem to struggle so much with any form of originality? And any arrangement that strays from the tired verse1-chorus-verse2-chorus-bridge-chorus(x2) standard is seemingly dismissed as intricate contrivance. I mean REALLY – it wasn’t exactly Aphex Twin! What I heard was inspired, original and beautifully crafted indie-rock with compelling melodies and perfect pop-sensibilities. The reviewer’s references to ” the sense of awkwardness”, “difficult juxtaposition”, “layers of complication”, “long passages of taut anxiety” and his claim that “the odd hook just made it seem even weirder” reveals someone with little apparent understanding of the finer points of indie-pop composition. Perhaps somebody more at home with the flowery soundbites of tabloid reviewing than with real music appreciation of any depth. Well, put it this way: The Button Factory was packed with several hundred ecstatic listeners who certainly didn’t seem to share this reviewer’s petty reservations. What I witnessed was an audience that left the building thoroughly enraptured by the beguiling and barnstorming Ms Clark.

  • Moh Fineartphoto

    Insulted by the reviewers parting posit that what Annie Clark delivered was ‘enough for most’ – the implication that his own sensibilities hover on a loftier plane. As though the sneaky Annie Clark somehow duped us dullards that roared and whooped and begged for more, spilling excitedly onto the street after breathless, inspired and awe-struck. As if we with our retarded expectations clapped our hands raw like big thick sea lions, lacking the superior critique of the gig-going aristocracy. Such a desultory review; to wit, pointless, lacking direction, focus or enthusiasm. And to boot the brass neck to offer advice she might ‘learn’ from. -To St Vincent?!The reviewer would have done well to spend twenty minutes loitering in the queue for the ladies bogs. This was a mature and savvy audience who knew their onions and Dublin gig-goers are articulate and florid in their de-brief. The excited chatter that crammed down the stairs after was only flushed with awe and pleasure and there can barely have been a man or woman in that crowd who didn’t want to be her or do her. A rare and joyful privilege to experience an artist of such exquisite talent, beauty and artistry at the height of her powers. No languid indie be-cardiganed half-hearted effort here. That woman delivered and delivered and delivered. You say contrived, I say orchestrated, engineered. I agree, there was barely a saucy incline of her chin that wasn’t thought-out, timed, rehearsed, delivered to cue. But what a treat to be served up such a tight and polished performance. That shows respect for the packed crowd who hauled themselves out on a chilly Sunday night. The sound was perfect, the lighting worthy of any venue five times the size, Annie Clark was on top, top form and held us all enthral. So say difficult to get close to or empathise with? I’m struggling to get that into context. I don’t want to be her friend, I’m there to watch a show. To spectate, experience, applaud, marvel, and exhausted at the end of the incredible journey she dragged us all on, worship. Yes she had us on a taut-tight-tense rein, and it was thrilling when she slacked the grip and let rip. In fact the curious thing is that in many respects the reviewer here gives a fairly faithful account of things, but shot through with such lazy naysaying it merely suggests she isn’t his cup of tea. To employ the adjective ‘weird’ shows he simply doesnt get her and all her dark and discordant manipulations so superbly executed. Fair enough. But show a little respect for those who do. This was an awesome gig. It left us giddy with superlatives. We came down Belfast to see that show, and had resources permitted, we’d have been on a plane to Glasgow the next day.

  • John

    Well said Moh and Penguin! Don’t get this review at all. The reviewer seems to have heard everything & understood nothing. This was a performance of immense power & beauty & an emotional rollercoaster. Good musicianship should not be mistaken for lack of feeling. Messy doesnt equal emotive. Anyway the tightness & melodic beauty was interspersed with plenty of raw power. The reviewer seems more intent on looking down his nose on both the audience & St Vincent than on writing a credible critique. ‘Baroque bubblegum pop’? Really? Come on Ian, you can do better than that! ..& I must agree with Moh that the parting shot ‘that will be enough for most’ is reaching new levels of condescension. Get over yourself buddy!

  • Ian Maleney

    @da0fd893539add453ed0f4fb79241228:disqus The verse-chorus-verse structure you mention doesn’t really come into it, that was not my problem at all with what I heard and I certainly don’t want to seem like I’m dismissing her songs as “intricate contrivance”. What I’m trying to get at is Clark’s (stated) intention of making her songs awkward and nervous, not simply my opinion of them as such. She does it on purpose and I wanted to question whether or not it is as effective as it could be, whether or not her balance between restraint and release works. It’s just a question. As for me being “more at home with the flowery soundbites of tabloid reviewing that with musical appreciation of any depth”, well, that is your opinion but I would, obviously, disagree. If you could, it would be nice to hear what you felt was positive about the gig and why you enjoyed it, as your comment kind of focuses my review. I would like to hear what you thought of the show yourself.

    @bf5695daa4576f245d0bab2051cd944b:disqus The “enough for most” comment was not meant in terms of the gig but more in respect to Clark as an artist, meant to be read as a suffix to the previous sentence rather than the review as a whole. What I’m trying to get at there is Clark’s intense control over what we (as audience members) are allowed to see or hear of her, musically, and the fact that what she gives us, will be accepted by most. For me, I don’t think that what we saw on Sunday night was anywhere near the limits of her capabilities, not so much technically (where she was flawless as ever) but emotionally, as an artist reaching an audience and affecting them. Yes, the performance was rock solid, the lights were impressive, the sound, after a shaky start, was spot on, this is all good and professional. It’s what you’d expect. I’m just asking if we can expect more than a one-sided conversation from an artist, where a gig is not so much a spectacle as an experience. They way you describe our part in the gig event – spectate, applaud, marvel, worship – seems odd to me, but maybe that’s just me. I want to feel as if what the artist is doing on stage is somehow affected by the 500 people looking back at them. I felt on Sunday like there could have been ten people there, or ten thousand, and it would have been the same show. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing.

    @6a6902e84dc3c98999449dc858c3c882:disqus I think the intentional complexity of baroque music, mixed with the hooks and melodies of classic pop, from the Beach Boys to Talking Heads, gives a decent enough idea of what is going on with St. Vincent. Yes there are other elements (post-punk and free jazz are mentioned), but I was only pointing out one. Hopefully my above explanation of “enough for most” will show I wasn’t trying to be condescending in the slightest.

    Lastly, it seems like all the negative comments about the review presume that I either don’t get, don’t like or look down my nose at St. Vincent. I want to say that I am a huge fan of Clark’s work and have been for years. I love her albums and have enjoyed seeing her live before. This was simply a reaction to one gig, one performance, and should not be taken for a sweeping opinion of Clark and her music. Hopefully that clears some things up.

  • MoH

    Thanks for your considered response Ian. Whilst I don’t agree with you I have given a fair bit of thought to your stance, so job done. Think it leaves us cheerfully shaking hands in that no mans land that is subjectivity, which is no bad thing.

  • Ahem

    “saucy incline of her chin.” 

    you’re an idiot.

  • Dudley

    Big fan of St Vincent, but was left a little disappointed by this. I think she herself was great, and gave it her all, but the band was a big let down. Far too polite and mannered, and never once in danger of breaking a sweat. It was too effortless and sterile. Never saw her old band, but supposedly they played with a lot more passion.

    Stage dive was annoying too, as it was absolutely contrived. Her roadie got her guitar cords prepped right before she did it. Meh

  • “what she wants us to see, hear and feel”:

    This is called Art. It is not necessarily comfortable.

    Without severely erected boundaries, there is no apt place
    for contrast, tension and comparison. The Artist is in control. She HAS to be.

    No Apologies.

  • Kindofken

    great show. great voice.