I have an oddly ambivalent relationship with female singer-songwriters.
Of course, there are a handful that I absolutely adore: Moon Pix era Cat Power, Laura Marling, Scout Niblett, Julie Doiron, Hope Sandoval, and Sea of Bees come to mind. And there are some that I have passing flings with – the Charlotte Gainsbourgs and Lykke Lis of the world. But more times than not, I just can’t muster any excitement.
Is it my gender that leaves me largely indifferent or downright turned off when it comes to artists like Wye Oak, My Brightest Diamond, or Joanna Newsom? Does some part of me feel threatened by a pretty girl with a guitar?
Heck, I’m not even really into Sharon Van Etten, the indie rock darling of Brooklyn. Or at least, I didn’t think I was until this week when a couple of her songs popped into my head unexpectedly, prompting me to go back and give Epic another shot.
Then there are still other female artists that I simply never gave a shot. So when I saw that NPR Music was streaming the new St. Vincent album, Strange Mercy, I knew I had to give it a shot. I confess to being embarrassingly ignorant when it comes to Annie Clark’s discography. Sure, I’ve seen her collaborate with other musicians a few times, but somehow, I had never listened to either of her albums.
Strange Mercy opens with a warped organ, some Bjðrk-esque vocals, some potent guitar riffs, and a hip beat. Not what I was expecting. I confess that in my mind, Annie Clark and Miranda July had converged into one person due to their quirky personas, similar hair styles, doe eyes, and ability to steal my male friends’ hearts. But far from being an awkward, twee parody, Annie Clark delivers cool precision.
Here’s “Cruel,” the first video from the new album:
Following a surprisingly upbeat couple of songs, “Cheerleader” sees Clark dipping into a darker, more vulnerable side that more closely matches the tone of her lyrics. (I can’t help but think back to Grizzly Bear’s song by the same title – also excellent.)
The album is polished in a way that will surely cause some to balk, but a gritty rawness still permeates the songs and prevents them from turning into eerie exercises in perfection. “Come cut me open,” Clark sings in “Surgeon.”
“[A]n unsparing examination of personal catharsis cloaked in some of the most sublime music of Annie Clark’s career,” boasts 4AD. A pretty piece of copy, indeed. Take a listen for yourself, and let me know if you agree.