St. Vincent's appeal might be likened to Anne Taintor's illustration of a 1950s trophy wife hoisting a dinner platter, the text reading, "The secret ingredient is resentment." There's a friction and duality to Dallas-reared Annie Clark's suspenseful character sketches, rigidly composed but easy to shatter, a feat evidenced by recent live revisions of Big Black's "Kerosene" and Tom Waits' "Tango Till They're Sore." In the domestic strife of 2009's critically acclaimed Actor, Clark played the role with a knowing wink, but Strange Mercy feels far more personal and cathartic, fully removed from the allegorical whimsy of her 2007 debut, Marry Me. "I spent the summer on my back; I'm under attack, staying just to get along," moans Clark in the hazy opening of "Surgeon," a hushed confessional. That album standout ranks among St. Vincent's most challenging and progressive work to date, Clark's quickening desperation mirrored by skittering guitar arpeggios and a hyperfunk groove revved into overdrive by gospel organist Bobby Sparks. The 1930s woodwind arrangements that carried the first two albums have largely been replaced with 1980s R&B effects and brazen avant-guitar work, most notable in the neurotic frenzy of opener "Chloe in the Afternoon" and understated yet upbeat highlight "Cruel." The anti-ballad "Cheerleader" burns at both ends with an aggressive chorus that pounds like fists on a slammed door, a stark contrast to the dire splendor of "Champagne Year." The back end fades ("Hysterical Strength," "Dilettante"), but with Strange Mercy, St. Vincent masters the art of grin and bear it. (St. Vincent holds court at the Moody Theater Oct. 24.)
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