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Against the Grain

The poised, surprising pop of Annie "St. Vincent" Clark

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Annie Clark, the 29-year-old powerhouse behind the stage name St. Vincent, is standing at the top of the mighty hill she's been climbing for the last five years. The Tulsa-born Clark's third full-length album, Strange Mercy, released late last year to great critical acclaim, showcased a clearer artistic identity than before.

The album expands the raucous guitar thrashing that Clark explored in her 2009 album Actor while retaining an eerie contrast with the quietude of her 2007 debut, Marry Me. It's an almost geometric progression, though the logic of it all is always undercut by Clark herself, who remains a captivating mix of fragility and volatility, threading seductively sweet melodies with frenetic disorder.

Clark's guitar chops have their origin in her training at Berklee College of Music, where she spent three years before joining the freewheeling choral pop ensemble Polyphonic Spree at 22. Two years later, she toured with Sufjan Stevens in his backing band, bringing along with her a three-track EP called Paris Is Burning.

Those early songs captured a lot of the slower moments that remain in Clark's music today, but back then her lilting vocal melodies filled out the spaces in the structural elements she continues to employ. Actor saw her injecting heavy, dirty guitar solos, often crashing them straight into the breathier, more orchestral elements that remained from Marry Me. Across the board, Clark's songs often find her inhabiting other people and characters, like Marilyn Monroe in Strange Mercy's "Surgeon," where desperation is undercut by lethargy, then supercharged with a searing guitar crescendo.

Clark's subject matter has always teetered on the edge of sickening and sweet, contrasting sunny harmonies with sour imagery. The videos that have been released so far for Strange Mercy — a dystopic view of domesticity for "Chloe in the Afternoon," where Clark is kidnapped by a family with no matriarch and forced to perform motherly and wifely duties, and a riff on Gulliver's Travels for "Cheerleader," where a giant Clark is hoisted into place inside a white-walled museum while onlookers gawk at her size — have explored the feeling of not fitting into situations or roles that one is forced into. Her recent explosion into what can now be clearly called heavy guitar-driven pop feels like a shattering of some of those real-life holes Clark has been pinned inside.

Most recently, she put out "Krokodil," a vinyl single for Record Store Day. The song unleashes the underlying tension that fills Clark's records.

"There's a tremendous amount of aggression in what I've done before, but it's just been subverted a bit and tucked away, more just kind of subtly menacing than outright crazy," Clark says in a recent phone interview, explaining that for this single she decided to let it all out. "I thought, I really want to write a song that I can just go crazy on."

Much of the press Clark has gotten over the years has concerned itself with her place as a female in the male-dominated indie sphere; the juxtaposition of Clark's delicate physical presence and her formidable guitar-wrenching skills is fodder for much of that conversation. But there's a universality to her music that sometimes gets swept under the "powerful female musician" generalization, and Clark herself has tried to evade that classification, deeming it entirely irrelevant.

"I have a joke with a friend of mine that people will ask the 'What's it like to be a woman in rock?' question, and my answer is the only difference is you get asked the 'What's it like?' question," Clark says with a laugh. "I don't think about music in gendered terms. If somebody is surprised by the fact that I play guitar well, that's kind of their own shortsightedness. That has nothing to do with me, really, and I think honestly, with the next generation, it will be even more of a nonissue than it is for me now."

Her demure physical qualities do contribute to the power of Clark's stage presence; the often expansive stages she plays on are filled with moving lights and the other members and instruments that make up her touring band, and at the center of it all is Clark. She's tiny in comparison, but her solemnity and stillness demand attention, and once she's gotten it, she careens off into distorted but structured delirium. It's a captivating contrast that's impressive to behold.

In a sphere packed with nonchalant surf-rock and lo-fi noise, Clark's labored, thoughtfully crafted but easy brand of pop is refreshing. She expertly sews together fragmented pieces to make smart, pleasurable but always surprising songs, and that feeling is translated perfectly to her carefully tailored performances. What underlies all of Clark's work is intention; she takes her job as a musician very seriously, and her reverence for the audience experience is clear.

"The great thing about music is that it has all these fractal consequences. You know, it may start as something and mean something to you, but then it works its way into other people's lives and takes on a whole new life, and it's like it's theirs now," Clark says. "So playing these shows on the one hand is obviously about me, because I'm the performer and the lights are focused onstage, but it's really about the audience. It's about them bringing their meaning of the songs back and me just trying to give them another dimension to the music."

St. Vincent, with Shearwater
Minglewood Hall, Thursday, May 17th, 8 p.m.; $18

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