St. Vincent’s Sweet Mercy

When one speaks of female musicians, the focus is so often on their appearance; from the way they dress to the color of their eyes, writers tend to place so much importance on what’s outside that it is easy to forget these women are serious musicians. Their talents are eclipsed by their looks, and it’s as prevalent in pop music (Britney, Gaga, Katy Perry, Adele) as it is in “alternative” music (Florence Welch, Beth Ditto, Zooey Deschanel). It’s a problem that never seems to affect their male musical counterparts.

Annie Clark, the woman behind St. Vincent, could easily have fallen into the trap of “cute and quirky-looking girl who can strum a guitar and wear short shorts” without producing anything of substantial value.

Luckily for us, Annie Clark is so much more than that.

Yes, she does have those bewitching doe eyes that gaze out at you in a way that is both inquisitive and knowing, and yes, she does know how to rock a pair of leather shorts, but the pleasant exterior is forgotten the second her first note hits.

At the Music Box in LA, the intimate theater served as the ideal setting for a night with St. Vincent. Clark is proof of the clichéd expression that great things come in small packages. Her unassuming presence on stage before she performs is charming and sweet, but as soon as she grabs hold of her guitar, things change.

Gripping the neck of her guitar like the neck of a man she’s trying to strangle, every chord she played seemed to vibrate through her bones as she played with intense focus. Her skill as a guitarist, which is not as obviously apparent on her albums, was on display in full force as the riffs to songs like “Cruel” and “Year of the Tiger” reverberated with unexpected intensity.

“You’re a really good guitar player!” shouted out one accurate but not so eloquent audience member, a compliment that she accepted with a humble laugh.

Clark’s voice has an amazing range, which is what allows her to go from singing in her slow, sultry voice for songs like “Surgeon” to unleashing unexpected grit on “Your Lips are Red” without faltering.

Her voice is essentially perfect, no hyperbole here. She can reach incredibly high notes without cracking. Her voice has the perfect sweetness and melodic range of a church choir singer, but at the same time has the lyrical edge that can cut you open like a rusty knife. The lightness of her voice has the potential to become saccharine and bubbly, but the weight of the music and lyrics brings it back down to earth and anchors her songs. Rather, they float in a place somewhere between heaven and hell, with the voice of an angel and the occasionally outbursts of guitar work from some underworld creature.

That’s not to say her music lacks any sort of pop sensibility; songs like “Cruel” and “Actor Out of Work” have the ability to be catchy and upbeat without being irritating; they’ll get stuck in your head without driving you mad.

Each of her songs that night was an exercise in tension and release; every song teetered on the edge of total control and absolute chaos, with Clark tipping the scales in either direction. As each song reached a moment of climax, her voice would quaver with the barely contained energy that hummed through her body like electricity. Clark’s voice soothed while the guitar wails and groans created a sort of static, intangible cloud that hung heavy in the air. Only once the song had ended would this veil be lifted and the air cleared.

The control Clark has is obvious in the almost neurotic precision with which she plays her guitar; with each pluck of the strings, her head would jut forward and backwards, her version of a less manic head-bang. At those moments when she relinquished control and let the music become an entity of its own, like during her cover of The Pop Group’s “She’s Beyond Good and Evil,” it was as if some sort of natural event was occurring; a massive cloud of smoke billowed and strobe lights flashed as Clark collapsed to her knees, wailing on her guitar and disappearing into the sound and smoke. When Clark unleashed that ferocious side of her performing persona, all you could do was stand in awe, your feet glued to the ground and eyes gaping wide. Your breath catches in your throat at moments like these.

But her softer moments had a simple and heart-wrenching beauty to them that only Clark, with her impeccable voice, could achieve. The encore began with a stripped-down performance of “The Party.” Accompanied only by the fuzzy and echoing notes of the piano, her voice was enough to make your knees weak. The melancholic melody with the distant but pervasive sadness of the piano was a music box lullaby of delicate plinking keys and the angelic strains of Clark’s voice and lyrics: “My pockets hang out like two surrender flags / I’d pay anything to keep my conscience clean / I am keeping my eyes on the exits / I’m steady now.” Only St. Vincent could make you so happy to be sad.

On her albums, Annie Clark perfectly captures the precise tones she strives for, but live, Annie Clark is simply brilliant. She is the trifecta of talent: music, lyrics and vocals combine inside one terribly talented woman who has turned her anxiety and creativity into something practically indescribable.