Wednesday, January 6, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1438: St. Vincent

After a couple of days driving to work (how decadent) I took the bus so I could walk home tonight and listen to this record. I enjoyed the walk, even though it reminded me I haven’t had nearly enough exercise over the last few weeks.

Disc 1438 is…. Actor

Artist: St. Vincent

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover?  A Giant Head Cover! This Giant Head belongs to Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) and is one of my all-time favourite Giant Heads.

How I Came To Know It: I loved 2017’s Masseduction (reviewed at Disc 1206) so much that I started digging into St. Vincent’s back catalogue to see if her earlier records appealed to me more after the passage of time. They sure did.

How It Stacks Up: I have six St. Vincent albums. Of those, “Actor” comes in at #4.

Ratings: 4 stars

I first heard “Actor” the year it came out. I gave it a full listen, found it fascinating but then moved on without a second thought. Now 11 years old, “Actor” remains so innovative it still sounds like it is from the future. As a bonus, my own ear for music has finally caught up to St. Vincent, allowing me to appreciate at least some of what she’s trying to accomplish. I expect I’m still missing plenty.

This record finds St. Vincent only beginning to plumb the depths of sound experiment, and it is already more advanced than most songwriters accomplish in a lifetime. She blends bells, reverb, cacophonous percussion and good old fashioned rock guitar. For those who don’t know, St. Vincent is one of rock and roll’s most gifted and inspiring guitar players. Like Tom Morello, she can tease almost any sound imaginable from a guitar and turn it into compelling music.

Innovation is only useful if it makes beautiful music. Through all the crazy experimentation St. Vincent threads melodies that are equal to any pop hit, and far more interesting to the ear. Pop’s power is usually in its ability to let your ear anticipate where the tune is going to go (this is both pleasurable, and makes you feel clever). On “Actor” I rarely know where these songs will go, but each note still manages to feel just right when it lands.

There are admittedly moments on “Actor” which are slightly weirder than they are pleasant, but that tension of off-putting sounds serves to make the melodies even more inspiring as they rise to the top of the tune. There were times when I wanted things to tone themselves down a bit, but even in those moments, I enjoyed not getting my way.

Due to her skills in manipulating sound and writing mind-blowing tunes, St. Vincent’s voice often gets short shrift. On “Actor” there are plenty of moments where she shows off a sweet and ethereal head voice. She could’ve been content to just sing these songs without all the bells, whistles and thumps, but we’re all lucky she didn’t. On more stripped-down songs like “The Bed” you get a front row seat to her vocal prowess, even as she continues to keep it weird with lyrics full of gun play and hints of violence.

When the sweetness of her vocals and the cyborg-inspired arrangements meet halfway you get brilliant songs like “Marrow”. St. Vincent is well aware of the tension created in “Marrow” to the point of voicing them in the lyrics:

“Muscle connects to the bone
And bone to the ire and the marrow
I wish I had a gentle mind
And a spine made up of iron

“Mouth connects to the teeth
And teeth to the loves and the curses
Honey, can you reach that spot
That needs oiling and fixing?”

When the chorus hits, she turns her guitar reverb into something resembling a trumpet in a robot factory. It is both haunting and mechanical, and above all that, catchy as hell.

It also shows just what a trendsetter she is. The ambient sadness of Phoebe Bridgers and the weird syncopation of Poppy both owe their roots to forward thinking records like “Actor.”

“Actor” doesn’t match the brilliance of St. Vincent’s classic eponymous album, nor the five-star brilliance of both “Masseduction” and “Masseducation” but it comes close, while showing the roots of what was to come. I’m glad I went back for a second listen.

Best tracks: The Strangers, Actor Out of Work, Laughing With a Mouth of Blood, Marrow, The Bed, The Party

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