Buying the Drama of St. Vincent

by Ryan Snyder

Annie Clark truly arrived in 2007 with a set of fully formed songs on her debut LP Marry Me, but it has taken four albums for her St. Vincent appellation’s live expression to properly catch up with her arty, but enthralling eccentricities. The 31-year old revealed a press photo last year in advance of a new self-titled record, released in late February, that depicted her with a head of stark white hair that looked more at home on her recent collaborator, David Byrne. It was only a small part of a more profound transformation, however, as her sold-out stop at the Haw River Ballroom for the “Digital Witness” tour last Tuesday attested.

Backed by a three-piece band that juiced cybernetic life into Clark’s high-art dance rock, her aesthetic was as much a nod to Byrne’s influence as her new hairstyle. She left out songs from their 2012 collaboration Love This Giant, but there were clever assimilations from Byrne’s oeuvre. Clark mimicked his demented marionette movements from the renowned “Once In A Lifetime” video, her show’s high contrast lighting similar to the chiaroscuro style Byrne adopted in the Stop Making Sense concert film. Mostly, however, it was the high-minded artistic aspirations that her show sought and achieved.

Tours of this nature are de rigueur for the upwardly mobile indie rocker transitioning from scene darling to its golden goose. They tend to happen around pivotal records — see Against Me!’s Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Janelle Monae’s Electric Lady for recent examples — and’  St. Vincent’s new, eponymous album more than delivered on the hype of being one of the most anticipated releases of the early part of 2014. One common identifier of these kinds of ascensions is in how media accessibility is afforded and by extension, the commonalities of the visual components of that reporting.

The barricaded photo area at the front of the stage was a first in the Haw River Ballroom’s two-plus years — co-owner Heather LaGarde confirmed it was stipulated by the tour. The strategic outcome is that there has been little variation in published pictorial accounts — the measured bow at the end of Clark’s introductory routine during “Rattlesnake” before the first word is sung, hovering over her fretboard playing “Cruel”’s rapid portamentos, or the hand mudras she repeated ritualistically while singing it. There were no barricades for Future Islands, who also sold out the same room the following night and are most certainly on their own sharp upward trajectory (though arguably a rung or two farther down the career ladder — nothing a Sam Herring/Bryan Ferry duets record couldn’t expedite).

But whereas Future Islands frontman Herring thrives on a tactile relationship with his audience, Clark’s performance was often something like a Schrodinger’s Cat in reverse. Her pinpoint choreography, eccentric soliloquys and hair-raising guitar work typically felt as if they were happening in a vacuum, unconscious of the presence of a packed roomful of observers. Even in the few instances she addressed the audience directly, it was detached, almost schizophrenic, as if her audience was a manifestation of her own inner monologue. “We have some things in common. Your family doesn’t know everything about you,” she began as she rattled off a list of stray observations that maybe applied to no one, but in her mind, everyone.

The circumstances did make for great images, both permanent and ephemeral, simply because Clark’s presentation was nothing less than stunning. Her reveal in an NPR interview prior to the tour that she garnered influence from Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s hyper-surrealist cult flick The Holy Mountain manifested in more ways than the manner in which she was perched upon her throne on the new record’s cover. She and synth player bassist Toko Yasuda recreated subtle imagery during their choreography, the film’s iconic bows, for instance. Clark also climbed the stepped pyramid behind her during “Marrow” only to slither back down it on her back, legs straight with arms out forming the cross of St. Peter in some ceremony of death and rebirth. It was as if her performance was intended to be a direct response to critics who have in the past called her music pretentious, to be as physically ostentatious and rarefied as she has been accused, but in the process offering the kind of theatricality that few others do.

Much of that outcome resulted from her willingness to embrace her outstanding, but often muted guitar skills. Her style is groovy, but elevated; technically brilliant, but tasteful. It requires a certain degree of dissonance to not run into a Prince comparison and it certainly fits after seeing and hearing the supersonic funk erupt from her guitar in the middle of a song like “Prince Johnny,” particularly after mostly being teased by her abilities in the past. Her tour supporting Andrew Bird in 2009, for instance, found her acquiescing to her headliner’s decorous, elegant tenor. Only on closer “Your Lips Are Red” at that time did she cast off the reins and kind of go nuts.

Here, amidst the gorgeously programmed and carefully synched formalities, were there moments of genuine impulse, if because this was a St. Vincent with whom many were not previously acquainted. She wasn’t shy about striking the classic guitar idol kinesics as she shredded either — chin up and out, eyelids in some fickle, fluttering state between open and shut, her guitar neck curiously lighter than air. Again, she saved the loudest fireworks for perennial show closer “Your Lips Are Red,” still totally sure of itself, and now in line with every other element of her music. !