Saint Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419), was a missionary and logician. Annie Clark (1982- ), the American singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who goes by the name St. Vincent, brings a missionary zeal to her current status as indie’s ambassador of goodwill from The Other Side. Likewise, despite all its head-spinning detours and U-turns, her music follows the pristine logic of a flowchart. Such was the case Thursday night when St. Vincent stunned a near-capacity crowd in the sweaty basement of the First Unitarian Church with a flawless recreation of selections from Actor, her just-released and deservedly hyped sophomore collection of otherworldly, asymmetrical pop.
Clark plays all the instruments on Actor, but Thursday night she was backed by a crack four-piece band – a flutist/saxophonist, a violinist, a bassist, and a drummer – that expertly replicated the album’s jigsaw arrangements and dreamy vistas. Clark handled guitar and vocal duties, and proved extraordinarily adept at both. Her guitar playing sounded like some unholy union of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp and the Butthole Surfers’ Paul Leary; her singing evoked the dream-pop enchantment of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, and the whisper-to-a-scream inscrutability of Bjork and Kate Bush. The whole ensemble was strikingly lit like a David Lynch dream sequence, with washes of bordello red and cerulean blue flickering in time with the music’s shape-shifting permutations.
Like the album, the concert opened with the aptly titled “The Strangers” and the quiet desperation of “Save Me From What I Want,” and closed with the climactic coda of “Black Rainbow” and the buzz-bomb disco strut of “Marrow.” In between came the menacing lullaby of “Bed” and the Abba-meets-Elastica “Actor Out Of Work” – and everything mirrored the dizzying bipolarity at the center of St. Vincent’s music, dramatic and altogether compelling living proof that the shortest distance between the ethereal and the visceral is not a straight line, but a pleasingly crooked one.
The performance concluded with “Your Lips Are Red,” from 2007’s Marry Me, a show-stopping meditation on 9/11. The song began as a sepulchral march, only to split open and reveal what sounded like the world’s most ornery klezmer band, which proceeded to erupt into a sonic approximation of sheer terror not heard since the shower scene in Psycho. Like just about everything St. Vincent touches, it was a potent reminder that the border between dreams and nightmares remains disturbingly porous. — JONATHAN VALANIA, 5/23/09