St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy marries sounds

Jack Braunstein ('13)/Eastside Online underground editor

Marry Me, indeed.

St. Vincent is the project of principle songwriter Annie Clark and a rotating cast of supporting musicians. The band burst out of obscurity with a thrilling performance on The Late Show and the release of their second full-length album, Actor, in 2009.

Clark’s performance is an enigma: a thin, demure looking girl with beautiful wide eyes and a porcelain face, gripping an angular, red and silver Danelectro guitar—pounding on the body and abrading the neck in a typhoon of distorted din—over a full-bodied horn section and her soaring, gorgeous voice.

Just like Clark’s puzzling public image, Strange Mercy is an album of dualities. Delicate string arrangements and lush synths bump up against gory guitar noise. Breathy laments about modeling days and lullabyes melt into references to horsehair whips and “sharks swimming in the red.” Like some sort of deranged Disney princess, Clark paints Strange Mercy like an ever-shifting balance between the beautiful and the vile. It’s exciting!

The album’s first single “Surgeon” begins in a breeze of very pretty synthesizers as Clark gently recalls, “I spent the summer on my back.” On the chorus, a woozy, almost nauseating guitar loop replaces the cooing first verse while the song takes a murkier turn: “best find a surgeon/ come cut me open,” Clark begs.

The song continues and the tension builds. The beat pulses and a blossoming horn and string interlude slides its way into the movement. Clark repeats the chorus with increasing intensity, until she jumps an octave into a even more frantic plea. After the final, most tense chorus, the song eschews any sort of denouement for a contorted-funk-keyboard solo on a mini-Moog by renowned gospel ivory tickler Bobby Sparks. “Surgeon” finally twists up into its queasiest climax in the final, squealing notes of Sparks’ solo.

St. Vincent throws a very similar left-hook on one of the albums many peaks, “Northern Lights.” Not only does the fuzzy track’s tension explode into an Ira Kaplan style skronky guitar solo, but pinnacles again in a strange, spastic electronic freak-out. “It’s a champagne year/ full of sober months,” carols Clark on the song.

Both the two aforementioned songs are part of the albums relentless first half, the house for some of St. Vincent’s most furious tracks to date. Side A is like a six-song investigation of the demented groove of “Marrow,” the streets-ahead highlight from 2009’s Actor. Each song in this part of the record buries the most sinister lyrics under an oddly jarring combination of fluttering strings, new-wave-y synths and Clark’s notoriously burly guitar tone. Clark, a master of these many-faced compositions, manages to make the snarling, basilisk-motorcycle-engine guitar solo that enters midway through “Cruel” flow so seamlessly with the easy-to-swallow art pop track that the song wouldn’t sound complete without it. Out of context, the string-scraping solo might sound like a page out of a Shellac leaflet, but with the help of master producer and past collaborator John Congleton, Clark makes it sound like a digestible piece of a dance-y, cerebral pop. That’s so cool!! So cool.

Strange Mercy’s second half comes off as a bit less immaculately structured than the first half, but still throws enough unexpected twists into the music to keep the album exciting. With its jagged, nearly Asiatic guitar lines and multilayered choral vocals, “Neutered Fruit” brings up memories of later Dirty Projectors material, but with a keyboard bass line way funkier than anything Dave Longstreth would go within a breadth of. Throughout the whole record, Clark’s vocals at their most frantic will remind listeners of Longstreth’s pitch-jumping, syllable mangling pipes. Unfortunately, the backbeat of “Dilletante” stumbles along drunkenly, and “Champagne Year” drifts along without reaching any sort of substantial climax. But by the time the album rolls into its closer, “Year of Tiger,” the excitement returns in full. Clark sounds more seductive than ever on the verses: “When I was young/ coach called me the tiger/ I always had a knack [a breathless pause here] for the danger,” she coos with an air of repressed malice.

Clark’s pouted lips quickly curl up into  a snarl as she sings of “living in fear in the year of the tiger.” Well, if the visceral, confusing thrill of Strange Mercy holds up as well as St. Vincent’s mesmerizing live show, 2011 may very well end up in the claws of the jungle cat with the fiery Danelectro.

8/10