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February 23, 2014 9:04 pm
Working with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, with whom she made the 2012 album Love This Giant, has left a mark on Annie Clark. Literally so: Clark’s dyed grey-white hair, a profusion of corkscrew curls cascading around the 31-year-old singer’s face, was partly inspired by old footage of Byrne. You can also hear the nervy funk of prime Talking Heads in her superb new album St Vincent, titled after her stage name. And the accompanying stage show has the playfully theatrical imprint of one who has paid close attention to Byrne’s moves.
She opened with the new album’s opening track, “Rattlesnake”, a comical tale of the Texas-raised Clark’s attempt to commune with nature in the desert, foiled by the unwelcome appearance of a rattlesnake. Bouncy electronic beats and fuzzy squalls of noise from Clark’s guitar gave the song a rude energy. Yet her robotic motions, like a mechanical mannequin playing brilliantly judged riffs, showed her in a different light – poised, in control, not putting a foot wrong.
Her new music is more disruptive than her three other albums as St Vincent. Yet the disruptiveness was staged at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with total self-command. “Birth in Reverse” found her moving back and forth on the stage in tandem with her bassist/keyboardist like a pair of figures on a clock. “Regret” had a fake ending so convincing that the venue erupted in applause before Clark and her trio – a drummer and another keyboardist making up the numbers – resumed the song. Her guitar solos were miniature masterpieces of tone and tempo, such as the carefully wailing passage of fretwork with which she concluded “Prince Johnny”, which she played standing on a podium before crumpling to the floor in an artful heap.
Emotions were present but carefully evoked, as when she sang “I Prefer Your Love”, a powerful 1980s-style ballad. She began it sitting at the back of the stage and ended it by gliding to the front, both simulacrum and enactment of the classic choreography for the big weepie. Stage chat was composed of quirky soliloquies about how we in the audience secretly behave. “You laugh when you get angry,” she said. (“That’s true,” a woman near me said.)
All this I admired much as one might admire a perfectly devised puzzle, which is to say with a certain detachment; but then her microphone failed as she prepared to sing “Northern Lights”. Would the whole immaculately constructed edifice come tumbling down? The opposite: Clark reeled off a stunning guitar solo at the lip of stage, launched herself into the punk-rock assault of “Krokodil” and encored with “Your Lips Are Red”, wild bursts of guitar modulating with calmer moments. Great things are within her grasp.
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