Friday, October 7, 2011

Album Review: Ratsliveonnoevilstar [EP] - Annie Clark

Last night I saw St. Vincent. It was, let me be clear, a great show. It reminded me of seeing the National play Metro in 2007 while touring off of Boxer, in that it was clear that this is a band bound for bigger things and larger venues. The light show alone was epic enough to say "yeah, I'm not gonna be playing small clubs forever, so enjoy it while you can."*

Although Annie Clark looked as good as ever, she was sporting a whole new backing band who put an entirely different spin on her live act than the last two times I saw her touring off Actor. Gone was the sax, in were dual keyboards for both bass and texture. She played mostly new songs, but her takes on older material, especially "Your Lips Are Red" showed just how important her bands are in shaping her sonic vision. All her music is sewn together with darkly erotic undertones, but the frame changes album to album, from the sixties pop-inspired Marry Me to the technicolor soundscapes of Actor and on to Strange Mercy's electronic menace.

Clark's musical shapeshifting isn't a recent trend, in fact it can be first observed in a 2003 EP she released as a music student at Berklee College. She chose the palindromic title Ratesliveonnoevilstar for this modest recording of three songs that feature her on a guitar along with a jazz bassist and drummer. The session offers insight into Clark's musical background with a looser, pop-jazz sound that continues to pop up in various songs throughout her work as St. Vincent. Not only that, but you can hear her development as a songwriter, with songs just as dark and quirky as her later work but with less polish and more suggestion.

The EP starts with its strongest song, the aptly-titled "Bliss". It starts of with syncopated drumming, rolling bass and clean, hollow-bodied electric guitar work that sound like they could come straight out of an early Sea and Cake record but the dynamic quickly shifts in a way that will be familiar to Actor fans. Clark's playing is soft and restrained compared to her shredding with St. Vincent but she throws in enough harmonics and slow-builds with soft releases to keep you on your toes. 

Lyrically and vocally is where she shines however, exploring in her sideways manner what would become common themes for her of sexuality and repression. Clark starts with a boldly suggestive image - "the microphone is stuck between your legs" but otherwise manages to keep herself together for the rest of the first verse before starting to loose her composure. The drums flutter and she drops into a low-register singspeak. "I'm not / ...crying / I never was" she tells him, unconvincingly. Then, her voice almost breaking, she admits "OK I'm / ...lying / I'm just scared / of letting go". 

It's an amazingly fully-realized musical moment for a new artist and she comes back to it again later, sketching herself in the song as a girl being pushed to the edge of her own emotions. This is highlighted by ambient party noise suggesting a crowded room. As the music builds to a crescendo, Clark starts singing increasingly angrily over the noise, as if showing that she's willing to make a scene, situation-be-damned. "I'm not calming down!" she repeats to almost the end of the song before the background noise recedes and she repeats (to herself or her boyfriend, it's unclear) "I'm not letting go". "Bliss" is a mini-melodrama in less than 3:30 that presages the emotionally rich and dramatic songwriting of "The Bed", "Surgeon" and "Paris Is Burning".

Clark has recently gotten notoriety for covers of cred-boosting artists like Big Black, Tom Waits and (on the current tour) the Pop Group but her sense of melody and even lyrical style owes just as much to sixties and seventies singer-songwriters, which can be seen on "Circle". In the song Annie starts with a simple finger-picked pattern and sweet singing pattern that's vaguely Joni Mitchell-ish. The song itself is mostly a simple folk ditty with drums and bass chiming in on the chorus (such as it is), adding weight to her refrain comparing life to a circle. What she's singing about is unclear, possibly her own life, possibly a lost love affair, things are left deliberately vague. The image of the circle and the way she intones/sings the word make it clear that Clark is meditating on the cyclical pattern of life. She knows that loss and change are inevitable but so also is the reality that whatever is lost or altered will be replaced by something that will, in turn me lost and mourned.

"Circle" is followed by "Count (Revisted)" which completes the thematic arc of the EP. If "Bliss" is about the breakup and "Circle" is about letting go, then "Count" is the next relationship run-through. Clark is begging her love to take another look at their relationship and count his blessings. Despite this, she seems to know that he won't be entirely content with her. "Count the dangers / and flirt responsibly" she warns, her voice a mixture of coyness, vulnerable longing and a knowing confidence that faintly hints of a warning. 

The song splits the difference between folk and jazz and lets Clark show off a little more of her guitar prowess with airy finger picking, interrupted by harshly strummed, palm-muted chords that are so clean-sounding that the rockier playing pattern seems almost ill-fitting. The soft/hard dichotomy mirrors Clarks indecision between sadness and anger in the lyrics. There's a brief jazz interlude with what sounds like backwards vocal loops before the song swirls to it's conclusion. Clark's guitar gallops off into the sunset with curt but frenzied strumming while her vocals riff on various pleas for her love to "stay with me" or "smile at me". She eventually gives up, just telling the man that "you're so hiiiiigh" while shutting down the music with a pretty finger-picked guitar flourish as the song and the EP float quietly off.

Ratsliveonnoevilstar isn't a grand statement or a missing link that will blow people's mind but it's a recording that succeeds wildly on its own terms. As a jazz pop outing, it's pleasant enough to relax to but weird and varied enough to keep you interested. The songs (especially "Bliss") are also strong enough to keep you coming back. As a portal into early Annie Clark and a pre-history of St. Vincent, Evilstar is illuminating and instructive without being so crude or grating (as so many "lost" early recordings are) that listening to it is more an academic than music exercise. 

As a musician, Annie Clark isn't quite an enigma - something inscrutable and ultimately unknowable. Rather, her music reminds more of the concept of broken symmetry - depending on what side she shows you, she can resemble any number of different ideas or projections, none of them wrong, but none of them telling the whole story. This EP is fascinating side of her music, one worth examination.

*On January 20, 2012, it was announced that her next tour, she'll be playing the larger-capacity Vic Theatre... so the climb continues.

Download the EP as a .zip

Bliss - Annie Clark
Circle - Annie Clark
Count (Revisted) - Annie Clark

Buy Marry Me, Actor or Strange Mercy to make your day better.

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