The riff, the melody, the hook, the catchy chord sequence, the chorus: these are the foundations on which most popular music is built. What would songs sound like without them?
One way to find out is to listen to the music of Annie Clark, the singer, songwriter and guitarist from Dallas who goes by the name of St Vincent. Formerly an accompanist with oddball acts Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, Clark has for the past few years forged a solo career by making music that is defiantly, uncompromisingly unmelodic.
For this show, she stood for the most part centre-stage wearing leather shorts and an expression of luminous, glassy-eyed wonder as she sang angular, fractured phrases in her strong, clear voice and fired off staccato bursts of heavily treated guitar. Meanwhile her shadowy three-piece band buzzed and thumped on synths and drums. Technically it was impressive – sharp, cohesive and concise.
This was music that employed mood, texture and rhythm for its impact. The problem was that the overwhelming mood was one of chilly detachment, while texturally it lacked depth and detail. Nor was there much in the way of rhythmic pleasure to be had, with the drummer hammering out one-dimensional beats that lacked suppleness.
The mid-tempo funk of “Save Me From What I Want” was plodding and mechanical, as was the slow groove of “Chloe in the Afternoon”. Equally disappointing, given Clark’s reputation as a virtuoso, was the show’s lack of guitar wizardry; anyone heading to west London in search of a good shredding session will have been disappointed. And, as if to compensate for the lack of conventional musical thrills, the lighting was all too often switched into hyperdrive, a blinding frenzy of flickering strobes and sweeping spotlights. Clark also tried to whip up excitement by indulging in a spot of crowd-surfing late in the show; some whooping ensued as she was tossed aloft, but the episode had a strong whiff of kooky contrivance.
A couple of songs lingered briefly in the memory: “Cheerleader” had a chorus that was – hallelujah! – actually a proper tune, and “Year of the Tiger” had a darkly memorable guitar riff. Overwhelmingly, though, this was a strange and unsatisfying experience: extremely clever, played with considerable expertise, highly cerebral, but largely unengaging.
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