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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Patchwork sound

St. Vincent blesses Boston

Published: March 7, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

diverse-city-3-7-08_page_2_image_0003.jpg“While people have cheered on the awful mess we’ve made,” crooned indie pop songstress, St. Vincent, “through storms of red roses, we’ve exited the stage.” After her stellar performance on Saturday night at the Middle East, the couplet seemed particularly apropos, even if the only “awful mess” of the night came from her overenthusiastic drunken admirers.

St. Vincent, also known as Annie Clark, might not have the biggest fan base, but what she lacks in numbers she makes up for in the sheer intensity of her groupies’ veneration. Even Clark herself seemed taken aback by the fervent response that accompanied her entrance onstage. “I thought New York was pretty slammin’ last night, but this is even better,” she interjected at one point.

Describing St. Vincent’s sound is nearly impossible, for each of her songs bursts forth with a plethora of bold and varied musical ideas that intertwine into a patchwork blanket of sound. It’s not surprising that the solo career of an artist who’s played with pop innovators like Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree incorporates so many disparate influences, but her kaleidoscopic arrangements surpass anything her collaborators ever achieved.

Take, for example, “Now, Now,” the proggy opening song of her set that combined glistening guitar harmonic squeals, pulsing overdubbed vocals and cascading synths into a Kate Bush-esque tour de force.

The single, “Jesus Saves, I Spend” was even more mind-blowing, with the polyrhythmic interplay between Clark’s slinky guitar riffs and the drummer’s militant beats counterbalanced by chirpy backup vocals. Her breathy soprano sounded even more tender than on the album, though it never devolved into the kind of precious cutesiness that mars many singers of her genre.

Her weakest moment was on the down tempo ballad, “Land Mines,” in which she intoned war metaphor-laden lyrics over swirling ambient guitar swells that seemed to drone on for several minutes too long. Nevertheless, the energy picked up immediately in the second half of the show, with the solo acoustic “Human Racing,” bouncing along a jazzy bossa nova groove followed by the anthemic, keyboard-led “All My Stars Aligned.”

Basia Bulat, an up-and-coming Canadian singer songwriter opened for Clark and elicited a warm reception. Using more string instruments per capita than I’ve seen in any folk pop group to date (including an autoharp, ukelele, viola, dulcimer, and guitar), she showcased her soulful contralto with energetic acoustic ballads. Her effusive stage presence gave her somewhat conventional lyrics a feeling of raw sincerity. “I gave you my heart before I knew what it was,” she moaned plaintively on “Before I Knew,” amidst cherubic three part harmonies.

Though her songwriting tended to sound derivative, her best songs evoked a sense of homespun familiarity bolstered nuanced vocal phrasing. “I Was a Daughter” emerged as her strongest number, a handclap-fueled serenade featuring an emotive viola line.

Unfortunately, the second opening band, Foreign Born, an alternative folk rock ensemble from Los Angeles proved less inspired. Their unimaginative melodies and unappealing, tinny vocals amounted to the biggest disappointments of the night.

The disaffected hipsters dabbled in shoegaze on “Keep it All Inside” and Nuggets-y garage rock on “Into Your Dream,” but after committing to neither they invariably drifted back into MOR alternative rock clichés.

Nevertheless, as the great poet Michael Lee Aday once noted, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Anyone fortunate enough to be in attendance at the Middle East on Saturday night was treated to a remarkable performance by a rising folk talent and one of the most underrated female artists in indie music today.

Clark may not have “exited the stage through storms of red roses,” but when several of her most zealous fans began chanting the chorus of “Marry Me,” it was apparent that they were not making a song request.