“Strange Mercy” by St. Vincent
As an artist, by the time you put out a third album, you’re either trying to replicate what you accidentally did so well on your first or second album, or you’re grasping hard at developing some sort of “new sound,” but either way it goes, a third album is always an identity crisis, and often a mess. It’ll make or break a great band. Annie Clark, the 28-year old Dallas native, made something odd: a perfectly realized third album.
Clark released her debut album as her pseudonym “St. Vincent” in 2007. Titled “Marry Me,” it was a quirky and dense indie-pop record, sweet and idealistic, with jazzy riffs and dense, layered, bouncy bass lines. Her 2009 follow-up, “Actor,” continued in that vein, but with a slightly jaded sense of noisy unease, all the while showcasing her brilliant guitar playing, complex arrangements, and her sweet, unnerving voice.
This brings us up to 2011, which sees Clark releasing her third St. Vincent album, entitled “Strange Mercy,” which is remarkable in its ability to make her first two albums look like halfhearted jokes. “Strange Mercy” shows us a side of Clark that is finally wise to the ways of the world and ready to trample anyone who gets in her way. Lyrically, she sings as someone who has been taken advantage of and has suddenly wised up to the whole scheme. It’s an explosive and vitriolic record, with Clark unleashing heavy guitar sounds on the listener that seem to grab you by the collar and shake you, as if to say, “hey, listen, I’m [expletive deleted] serious.”
Clark, who looks like a porcelain doll, with fine features and large, expressive eyes, contrasts and tempers the massive, complex guitar sounds with her calm voice and delicate sense of melody, which honestly serves to make the whole thing more disturbingly fascinating.
It’s unfortunate that all of our culture’s legendary guitar virtuosos have been men, which really cements the idea of shredding on a guitar as a masculine trait. Clark, however, is able to use this to her advantage to create an iconoclastic masterpiece. She’s clearly tired of being sweet, but she uses her feminine sensibilities to bring her layered brand of obsessive-compulsive order to the chaos that we all associate with the sloppy blues-rock of Jack White or The Black Keys.
On her track “Dilettante,” she layers a distorted guitar to blast and hiccup like a marching band horn section. The infectious stomp of the single “Cruel” matches the strutting back-and-forth guitar hook, played on three different (but complementary and alternating) distortions. It sounds complex, but it’s not difficult to absorb. It’s just Clark asking you to listen to her music actively instead of merely hearing it passively. Well, maybe she’s not asking. I think she’s demanding. – AM
“Major/Minor” by Thrice
Legendary post-hardcore/experimental rock band Thrice released its eighth full-length album, “Major/Minor,” yesterday, a well-written follow-up to their 2009 release “Beggars.”
Though the music on the album doesn’t sound a lot different than what they’ve written in the past few years, such as “Beggars” or their “Alchemy Index” volumes released in 2007 and 2008, it doesn’t have to. Vocalist/guitarist Dustin Kensrue and crew have found their knack and certainly have no reason to stray from it. As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
The album starts out with “Yellow Belly,” an abrasive, enjoyable song that really highlights Kensrue’s raw vocals, giving the listener a preview of what the rest of the album is to be like.
One of the things that have always been most enjoyable about Thrice is the lyrics the band puts in their songs. While I’m personally not usually a fan of religious undertones in rock music, Kensrue sings it with a certain type of honesty and awareness of the world, not letting his own personal opinions take over a song, but rather just pointing out what he sees. In “Words in the Water,” Kensrue sings, “And when I lost all hope to look, someone took that heavy book from my hands; all its weight they set aside, after they had satisfied its demands. I felt white and black reverse, and the lifting a curse from my heart. Then like one receiving sight, I beheld a brilliant light in the dark.”
Kensrue has always had an innate ability to not only sing in a completely raw, emotional fashion, but to write his lyrics as such. It’s obvious through listening to the songs that each one means something spiritual to Kensrue, which only proves to feed the raw sound in which he sings. In “Anthology,” he sings, “I bragged of baring my bones, said if we heard the howling I’d run out to face it alone, to meet it halfway. But I’ve still got badges to earn, so keep sifting my soul, ‘cause I think that I’m starting to learn to love you that way. And it’s true that you could snap my neck, but I trust you’ll save my life instead, ‘cause our love is a loyalty sworn. If we hold to our hope then I know we can weather the storm, whatever they say. Come what may.”
The best song on the album would have to be “Treading Paper.” It starts soft and melodic, leading into slightly heavier riffs that, combined, make the song catchy, emotional and just overall enjoyable to listen to.
Major/Minor was released on Vagrant Records and can be picked up at Hastings Entertainment in Conway or ordered on the band’s website. – PT