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Beyond Good and Evil

St. Vincent brings ‘Strange Mercy’ to the Moody Theater

By Austin Powell, 7:00AM, Wed. Oct. 26, 2011

St. Vincent
St. Vincent
photo by Shelley Hiam

Annie Clark’s first appearances as St. Vincent gave the impression of a smitten ex-girlfriend: a statuesque beauty weaving allegorical and at times Biblical tales of love that shattered like so many broken windshields in her wake. Her set Monday night at ACL Live at the Moody Theater proved far more eloquent and refined, but every bit as dangerous.

Clark has largely moved past the coquettish material of her 2007 debut Marry Me, with the lone selection, “Your Lips Are Red,” not surfacing until the encore. Instead, the evening was devoted almost entirely to St. Vincent’s outstanding new album, Strange Mercy, bolstered by a human drum machine, two keyboardists, and a light show that Clark said should come with a post-it warning: “Enter at your own risk … in a good way.”

Strange Mercy is a work of complicated beauty that fits in nicely with new fusion aesthetic in indie rock – evident in Bon Iver’s slow jams and honorary guest Sam Beam’s Iron & Wine – incorporating elements of 1980s pop and R&B. St. Vincent’s approach is more theatrical and unnerving in contrast, but there were obvious parallels in slower numbers, such as “Save Me From What I Want” and “Strange Mercy.”

From the escalating drama of opener of “Surgeon” to the massive swell of “Cheerleader” and S&M delight “Chloe in the Afternoon,” the 80-minute set provided some interesting variations on themes of domestic strife and role playing. As a guitarist, Clark didn’t shred but contorted, warping the sound of her six strings as if stomping in her high heels and twisting, most notably in “Northern Lights.”

“I think I’m fucking mad,” Clark shrieked at the conclusion of “Actor Out of Work,” which, like the subject of the Actor highlight, hit with the force a boxer with brass knuckles. Even then, however, it felt like St. Vincent was pulling punching, continuously pushing matters to the brink but never past.

The exception was her metallic rendition of the Pop Group’s “She is Beyond Good and Evil.” Much like the Big Black tribute “Kerosene,” this was an exorcism, not a cover, Clark’s abrasive No Wave guitar adding an almost industrial sheen, like white heat atop a skittering disco beat.

Slightly terrifying yet thrilling, it was as if Clark was singing out about herself.

Set list:
“Surgeon”
“Cheerleader”
“Save Me from What I Want”
“Actor out of Work”
“Chloe in the Afternoon”
“Dilettante”
“Cruel”
“Just the Same but Brand New”
“Champagne Year”
“Neutered Fruit”
“Strange Mercy”
“She is Beyond Good and Evil”
“Northern Lights”
“Year of the Tiger”
“Marrow”
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“The Party”
“Your Lips are Red”

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