St. Vincent fishes for something beautiful

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      Asked how she'd describe her work under the guise of St. Vincent, Annie Clark offers a couple of decidedly cryptic suggestions.

      "Part of it is that American psychosis of 'I have to be doing something every single second,'" says the charming, Texas-bred multi-instrumentalist, on the phone from a Montreal tour stop. "I just have sort of a meticulous brain that won't let me rest until everything is in its right place. I'm either a proud recipient of that, or victim, depending on your outlook."

      Then again, maybe St. Vincent's sprawling, outrageously adventurous debut, Marry Me, is a byproduct of the 23-year-old wanting to escape a world that seems headed to hell in a rocket-powered handcart.

      "I've always had a tendency towards grandiosity–things that are larger than life and sort of Technicolor," Clark notes. "There's a bit of escapism there. I've also been thinking about how our brains get saturated from an early age about sex and violence, which creates this thing where, if you allow it, you can feel like you are in a state of panic at all times. Maybe Marry Me is an attempt to put a little order back in our psyches, and maybe fish for something beautiful in the same way that Sufjan does, and the Spree does."

      The Sufjan that she's referring to is, of course, Sufjan Stevens, whose last Vancouver spectacle had him backed by a 16-piece indie-rock orchestra. The Spree is the Polyphonic Spree, whose 24 members gave Vancouver its best show of the year two weeks ago at the Commodore. Before she decided she was ready to strike out on her own as St. Vincent, Clark played guitar in both musical mini armies, giving her hands-on experience with two of the most inspiring and creative acts in pop music.

      From a songwriting perspective, she obviously learned a thing or two from her indie-rock apprenticeships. Marry Me finds Clark–who plays everything from bass and clavietta to dulcimer and vibraphone–operating under the pretence that rules are made to be smashed. It's somehow fitting, then, that the gorgeously celestial "Now, Now" should be ripped apart by a feedback squall as the song winds down, or that the ethereal art-rocker "The Apocalypse Song" ends up shot through with seasick violin and off-speed handclaps. Most of the disc is just plain beautiful, however, whether Clark is loading the songs up with symphonic swells or taking things down to a 4 a.m. hush. Loungetastic piano and Paris-in-spring horns make the title track tailor-made for cocktails on the Champs-Elysées, and the ghosts of the Andrews Sisters surface on the jazz-dream closer "What Me Worry?".

      Lyrically, Clark proves herself cleverer than the average bear with lines such as "Juliet how you been/You look like death?/Like you sure could use some rest" in "Human Racing". Combine her sense of humour with the same orchestral strain of indie rock that's made underground superstars out of the likes of Joanna Newsom, not to mention Stevens, and you get the feeling that the singer won't be playing the bar circuit on her next swing through North America. Ask Clark if she feels like she's on the verge of becoming the Pitchfork set's new favourite artist, however, and she turns cryptic once more.

      "Success is kind of ephemeral in terms of how you would define it," she says. "What I'll say is this record is very humbling. I made this record in a little studio in Texas. It's remarkable to me that any given three seconds is something that I spent 18 hours on. That makes it all hard to measure, but I'm pleased that I'm getting to play music that I love."

      St. Vincent plays the Lamplighter on Monday (July 30).