After a long period of being sidelined and unfashionable, the female singer songwriter has been making something of a comeback in recent years, with a flurry of beguiling new talents emerging from all the corners of the world. Perhaps the most promising debut of them all came in 2007, the elegant, virtuoso Marry Me from Oklahoma's Annie Clark (AKA St Vincent). Now, with Actor, Clark has made the leap from promising to thrilling.
As melodically luscious as Portugal's Rita Redshoes, and as restlessly experimental as Iceland's Emiliana Torrini, Clark edges ahead of both through the sheer breadth of her musical palette. As befits someone who has worked closely with both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, the eleven songs on Actor throb with sonic invention and eclecticism, written and expertly arranged by Clark.
So The Strangers may open as a chiming, music box whirr of percussion, organs and sugary harmonies, but by its close is assailed by a surging, snarling, surprising guitar. And though much of Black Rainbow is candyfloss pretty, its coda is a nerve-shredding, tension-tightening spiral of orchestration. Certain female singer songwriters are snidely dismissed by rock snobs as background music: Clark makes this impossible, since most of these songs are far too unpredictable to fully relax into.
Marrow is the most obvious example of risk-taking, a fusion of early Bjork dreaminess, Lykke Li electronica and Nine Inch Nails guitar grind which is as effective as it is peculiar. More straightforward is The Party, all rolling pianos and piercing melancholy, though with a melody as ravishing as this, little ornamentation is needed. The most obviously poppy song, Save Me From What I Want, lies somewhere between, with Clark's honeyed, insistent vocal gliding over a shuffling trip hop beat and fat, fuzzy bass.
It's true that towards the end, songs like The Bed and The Sequel veer perilously close to the very vagueness and conventionality the rest of the album has so brilliantly defied. But by this point, Actor has proven itself so bristlingly bold and inventive you can forgive it for finally relaxing a little. At this rate of progress, Clark's third album should be an utter masterpiece. --Jaime Gill
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