Dropping out of Boston’s Berklee School of Music is sort of a badge of honor. It’s almost as if making it through the program is a signifier of some disturbing lack of music business acumen. John Mayer is probably Berklee’s most famous dropout to date (should’ve stuck around for songwriting classes, Mr. Mayer. You need ’em), but he is also but one in a line that extends as far back in time as the school itself. My current favorite Berklee dropout, however, is Annie Clark, who left Berklee to join The Polyphonic Spree and then play in Sufjan Stevens’s live band and then began choosing her own musical adventure as St. Vincent.
The Polyphonic Spree? Sufjan Stevens? Oh boy. I’m gonna hate St. Vincent. Right?
I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of judging a book by its cover here on Bollocks! and that’s because I don’t. And the same goes with people’s musical associations, for the most part. If you hang out with my various musical nemeses, I might tread cautiously around you, but I probably will still give you a listen (in fact, many of my favorite acts kick it with Sufjan, but that’s because everyone loves him but me) This is, hopefully, one of the key differences between being a snob and being an asshole.
And, one of the key differences between Annie Clark and Sufjan Stevens is that she isn’t trying to impress us with her compositional skill (I can here some besweatered Pitchforker out there fortifying themselves with a quick hit of their inhaler and preparing to tell me that Sufjan is so not trying to do that, but when one of your “songs” is a thirty second horn part, you’re either 1) showing people you know how to write horn parts, 2) an asshole, or 3) some combination of 1 and 2). Come to think of it, that’s one of the key differences between Andrew Bird and Sufjan Stevens… which must mean (follow me on this circle of logic, won’t you?) that St. Vincent and Andrew Bird should tour together so nerds like me can go and nerd out.
St. Annie Clark Vincent is a composer worthy of comparison to Mr. Bird, but her compositions, for those of you who find Bird a little inaccessible, are much poppier. This is not a bad thing, just a difference. Actor is a breezy listen where Noble Beast takes some time and a little more willingness to follow Andrew Bird wherever the songs take him. Clark tends to hover round the three minute mark (the uber-catchy title track is less than three minutes) for the most part, infusing each song with layers of instruments and vocal parts that all dance in and out of the outstanding melodies.
Opener “The Strangers” is one of the best examples of what I’m talking about. It starts out with strings and a soft beat, followed by Clark’s voice in both the fore and background (catchiest background vocal of the year: “paint the black hole blacker”) and the song builds to fuzzy guitar spazz outs and drums straight out of a Delgados album. And the whole thing is barely four minutes (one of only four songs on Actor that eclipses the four minute mark, and it doesn’t feel that long to me).
In fact, on melodies alone, perhaps Camera Obscura would be a fitting tour partner for St. Vincent so that those of us who like melody (and realize that Phoenix mostly sucks at it) a whole bunch can be satiated. I realize that this review is becoming one long solicitation for St. Vincent to pair up with some of my other favorite acts and come to Los Angeles, but so what? The odds are more favorable that someone will actually participate in my National ticket contest than they are that Annie Clark will read this post and say, “Shit, I gotta call Andrew Bird and get us both to L.A. forthwith!”
Actor, like some Andrew Bird albums (I thought this was true of Noble Beast, but it’s actually only really true of Armchair Apocrypha), can tend to sag a little after the first six tracks, but the more I listen to it, the more I find that it’s a product of stacked sequencing. Clark put the six cathiest tracks on the album right up front and the other five are good, they just can’t match the fire of their predecessors. On the other hand, it does give Actor a sort of made-for-vinyl feel, with Side A ending on “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood.” If anyone out there has this album on vinyl, drop me a line and let me know where the split is – it’d be a damn shame if it was anywhere else.