Female musicians – they’re coveted in mainstream music culture, mainly recognized for their vocal talents among other fine assets (not just their dancing skills). However, people seem to have bigger expectations of women in the more alternative and underground music scenes. She’s got to have a sultry or powerful voice, the ability to play at least one instrument and an attitude that doesn’t conform to the usual oozing-with-sex-appeal standard. Attitude aside, her natural talents always hold the most weight. Female musicians come and go; they wind up tucked away in the back of the band or their transparent masquerade reveals their lack-luster abilities. Talented female artists that skillfully pave the walkway, not getting their heels stuck in the wet cement, do exist. The best ones present themselves shyly to the spotlight or do not get the press hype they deserve.
The ears and minds behind this year’s San Francisco Noise Pop Festival recognize one of today’s talented female artists, Annie Clark (who goes by St. Vincent under the neon lights). Clark headlined at the Great American Music Hall showcasing her acclaimed album “Marry Me,” which won her Plug 2007’s Best Female Artist award. Over the years, Clark’s hands have beautifully molded textures and soundscapes through the multiple instruments that she has mastered since the age of twelve. These instruments include the guitar, bass, drums, synthesizers, xylophone, flute and various types of pianos. Amongst all the big indie female acts like Feist, Cat Power, Rilo Kiley, and Jenny Lewis, who share similar styles and presence, Annie Clark is refreshingly unique.
Clark manipulates all the feelings associated with love into a larger-than-life sound tapestry throughout “Marry Me.” Her compositions are on the verge of avant-garde, bridging gaps between different genres. Melodic lullabies wrap around poetic irony, Moog synthesizers twinkling along gentle slopes of piano ballads, horns deeply breathing out cinematic qualities of despair, orchestral strings that sweep you into rising and falling passions and resounding drums and guitars. All these either cry out tones of harsh bitterness or melt together in sweet harmonic syrup. These lush sounds elevate Clark’s compelling jazz voice to be bold as Beth Gibbons of Portishead or tender as Gallia Durant of Psapp.
Although “Marry Me” may sound epic recorded, St. Vincent is a totally different experience live. Clark does not bust out all the bells and whistles. Instead, she keeps her setup very minimal: a guitar with a couple of effect pedals, a drum machine and an electronic keyboard draped in tassels. The simplicity of her live set only makes her more powerful, like Bob Dylan back in the day when he performed his beloved electric material on a lonely acoustic guitar. Some female artists exude sex, while St. Vincent exudes love. A full-fledged back up band behind her, despite its glorious sound, would only distract the listener from her raw manifestation of love.
While watching St. Vincent in a mesmerized stupor, I felt all the emotions of falling in love, being in love, the heartache and the aftermath, all in one hour. The minute Annie Clark stepped on stage with her black dress, frizzy black hair, red heels, red lipstick and those bright green eyes, it was hard not to be struck by her beauty. She sang about philosophy with her song “Jesus Saves, I Spend.” She’s intelligent, beautiful, has an amazing voice and can wield a guitar better than most. Then, she exposed her dark wild side with “Your Lips Are Red.” While grooving in the middle of the song, she burst into a ferocious guitar solo that was sharp, violent and impulsive, but somehow subtly erotic as she flailed around, her head bobbing up and down. Next came the title track, “Marry Me.” Clark’s graceful touch on the piano inspired complete infatuation. Then she suddenly stopped. She took time in the middle of the song to show her gratitude to the crowd and thank San Francisco for welcoming her; she’s modest too! Everything seemed to go smoothly with a couple more ballads of affection. Heartache hit an all time high with a cover of Nico’s “These Days.”
The St. Vincent experience left me with an unforgettable internal body experience. I don’t know if everybody felt the exact same way in the room (some girl on the balcony had her laptop out looking incredibly bored), but it seemed as if the majority got a rush and high off the love that lingered, captivated by the mouth, hands and eyes of St. Vincent.