St. Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

MASSEDUCTION is an album full of contradictions. It’s St. Vincent’s most unabashedly poppy album and yet it also feels like her weirdest one. It’s loud and blaring in places and quiet and tender in others. It’s fun – and it’s also heartbreaking. If it’s not Annie Clark’s best album, it’s at least safe to say that it’s her most interesting one.

With 2014’s self-titled release, it felt like Clark had perfected St. Vincent’s sound. Songs like ‘Birth In Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ felt like cumulations of the weird style she had been striving for from her very first album… So where could she really go next? In answering this question, MASSEDUCTION takes two different paths; half of the album sees St. Vincent go even further down the weirdness rabbit-hole, while the other half shows her taking things in an incredibly stripped down and emotionally honest direction. The divide between these two styles is the album’s greatest strength and its great weakness… It almost feels like Clark is torn between two worlds.

The album’s first half is full of that distinctive St. Vincent weirdness, with tracks like ‘Los Ageless’ and ‘Pills’ being pretty much instant classics for her. ‘Los Ageless’ has all the usual makings of a solid St. Vincent single – the thumping drum machine, the wailing synths, the distorted guitar riffs – and could’ve easily fit onto Clark’s last album. ‘Pills’ is similarly great. Sound-wise, it has a great childlike feel to it, with the peppy synths and Cara Delevingne’s chanting chorus vocals (‘Pills, pills, pills, every day of the week’). I also appreciate the shift that the song takes towards its end, avoiding a big finish in favour of a gorgeous and soft acoustic guitar-led breakdown.

‘Masseduction’ is another of the album’s best ‘weird’ songs, even if there isn’t that much to it. It basically centres around a single line which Clark chants over and over (‘I can’t turn off what turns me on’), but it’s such a great mantra for St. Vincent that I don’t really mind the repetition. But while the high level of repetition works on this track, it doesn’t really on ‘Sugarboy’ – easily the album’s weakest track. While it’s not completely awful – Clark’s seductive delivery on the verses is particularly good – the loud, obnoxious chanting of ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’ does get old incredibly fast.

As I said before, MASSEDUCTION feels like it’s split between two worlds – and this becomes increasingly clear in the album’s second half. Apart from ‘Fear The Future’ and ‘Young Lover’, every track has a quiet, intimate feel to it, with Clark being as emotionally open as she’s ever been before. There’s even a couple of piano ballads – a far cry from the eccentricity usually associated with St. Vincent. The first of these, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, is heart-wrenching and shows just how good a storyteller Clark can be. It demonstrates that there’s a lot more to her appeal beyond her unique instrument choices. The second of these ballads, ‘New York’ – which centres on Clark’s break-up with actress Cara Delevingne – is slightly weaker overall, but just as emotionally raw: ‘You’re the only motherfucker in the city who can stand me.’

The album’s closing tracks dial up Clark’s emotional openness even further, delivering some of the artist’s most down-right depressing work. A common problem I’ve had with St. Vincent’s past albums is that they felt like they ran out of steam (or solid songs) before the end – this is especially true with 2014’s self-titled release. MASSEDUCTION, however, avoids this problem by saving its best tracks till last. The lyrics to ‘Slow Disco’ are beautifully sad (‘Slip my hand from your hand and leave you dancing with a ghost’) and the string arrangements that hang in the background just intensify this. It’s a moving break up song that again shows how powerful Clark can be even when she strips back her sound. ‘Smoking Section’, the album’s closer, is somehow even more depressing and just makes you want to give Annie a hug. She knocks herself down pretty heavily – with there even being some suicidal imagery – leading to one her most powerful and difficult to listen to songs.

And it’s the emotional honesty on tracks like this one that really makes the album for me. It’s easily St. Vincent’s messiest and most inconsistent release, containing some of her most forgettable songs, but it also feels like one of her most important ones. And besides, break ups are messy – so shouldn’t an album born out of one be messy too?

Best Tracks: ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Smoking Section’.

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The Essentials Of St. Vincent

St. Vincent’s new album MASSEDUCTION came out last Friday and, in short, it’s great. (Expect a full review sometime soon…) In the build-up to its release, I decided to go back over the artist’s older releases and was struck by just how good they all are. I’ve always thought of St. Vincent/Annie Clark as a great artist, but revisiting those albums reminded me just how great she is.

As an outlet for gushing about Clark’s work a little bit, I thought I’d put together a post detailing the best songs to start with for anyone looking to get into St. Vincent. Her back catalogue isn’t exactly huge (five solo albums and a collaboration album with David Byrne) but it can sometimes be hard to know where to start when listening to someone for the first time. St. Vincent’s discography, as you’d expect, is best listened to in chronological order starting with her first album Marry Me but these ten songs should hopefully offer a great overview of her sound as an artist. They’re not necessarily my favourite St. Vincent songs, more the ones that best sum up what she’s all about.

I’ve also refrained from including any songs from MASSEDUCTION, simply because of how new it is. Besides, I’ll be talking about the album in-depth soon anyway… So, let’s get to it.

‘Now Now’ (from Marry Me)

Okay; maybe the first song from the first album is a bit of an obvious one to start with, but I found it impossible to miss this one off. Compared with St. Vincent’s later work, most of the material on Marry Me is pretty straight-forward – ‘Now Now’ included. It definitely feels like slightly more of a typical singer-songwriter release. That said, there are still signs of Clark’s love of strangeness and messing with expectations on the album and in the track. The chanting child-like backing vocals, the off-key sounding keyboard, the flickers of menace in Clark’s vocal delivery… Not to mention the fantastic guitar freak-out at the end of the song. It’s a great track that hints St. Vincent isn’t as straight-forward as the innocent-looking album artwork might suggest…

‘Your Lips Are Red’ (from Marry Me)

For a first album, Marry Me is incredibly consistent. I could make an argument for just about any of its songs having a place on this list… but none more so than ‘Your Lips Are Red’. The song has gone on to become St. Vincent’s go-to set closer and it’s not hard to see why. The track oozes with tension, thanks to some particularly ominous strings and unnerving piano key jabs. Clark’s vocals are also worth mentioning. As I said, there were flickers of menace on ‘Now Now’, but with ‘Your Lips Are Red’ it feels like Clark might explode at any second. And just as it seems like that explosion might take place, the instruments lighten, the vocals soften and the song progresses to an almost dreamy state. A real album stand-out.

‘Actor Out Of Work’ (from Actor)

Actor feels like a pretty natural progression from Marry Me, continuing to blend soft sounds with aggressive ones in a way that shouldn’t work but somehow does. It’s also more ambitious and more diverse, with Clark trying out a number of different styles as shown by ‘Actor Out Of Work’. At only two minutes long, the song doesn’t waste any time – driven by a propulsive drumbeat and a fantastically glitchy guitar. Though it moves quickly, there’s a lot going on; it’s easy to overlook the cleverness of Clark’s lyrics as well as the many great instrumental touches. Part of me wishes it was longer, but then again its brevity is what makes it so good.

‘Marrow’ (from Actor)

No other track on Actor demonstrates how well Clark is at bringing gentle and clean instruments together with heavy and distorted ones. The song opens fluttery and soft – resembling the soundtrack to a Disney film – before Clark’s vocals darken the tone. The song’s lyrics are unsettling as it is (‘Muscle connects to the bone / And bone to the ire and marrow’) and Clark’s delivery just intensifies things. Things eventually blow up on the chorus when Annie’s guitar, chugging in the background in the song’s opening, bursts out in all its distorted glory. It sounds downright ugly, but somehow St. Vincent makes it work.

‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ (from Strange Mercy)

The opener to St. Vincent’s third album sets the tone perfectly. Gone are the soft acoustic instruments that dominated much of Clark’s last two albums, ditched in favour of alien-sounding synths and sharp drum machine beats. In many ways, Strange Mercy feels like St. Vincent coming into her own – she knows what sound she wants and she knows how to get it. ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ somehow manages to be unsettling and strangely sexy at the same time, with Clark singing of black pearls and horse-hair whips. Though it’s not hard to work out what’s being sung about, there’s a beautiful vagueness and languidness to the lyrics that helps the song sound unlike anything else.

‘Cruel’ (from Strange Mercy)

If there’s one consistent theme throughout St. Vincent’s discography, it’s the idea of the outsider. Many of the artist’s best songs sing in favour of fighting against the social norm and society’s standards. You can see this pretty clearly on Marry Me’s title track, in which Clark touches on matrimony in a sarcastic tone (‘Marry me, John, I’ll be so good to you / You won’t realise I’m gone’) and ‘Cruel’ in many ways feels like that song’s sequel. On the opening she sings, ‘Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?’, touching on the way that women are objectified by society, being told that becoming a wife and mother is the only thing they can aspire for. As the song’s chorus puts it best: ‘How could they be so casually cruel?’

‘Surgeon’ (from Strange Mercy)

Another standout from Strange Mercy, ‘Surgeon’ again addresses the idea of the outsider. The song is based around a quote from Marilyn Manson’s diary which also serves as its hook (‘Best finest surgeon, come cut me open’). The lyric is uncomfortable by itself, but Clark’s calm then panicked delivery and the woozy synths in the background (almost replicating the feeling of being ‘put under’) just make things all the more unsettling. The quote connects Clark to Manson, with her identifying herself as a freak or anomaly – something to be cut open, dissected and examined.

‘Who’ (from Love This Giant)

In relation to the rest of Annie Clark’s discography, Love This Giant feels like a bit of a detour. A collaboration with legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, the album takes things in a different, almost jazzy direction. Clark’s signature guitar is also nowhere to be found. Despite this, the album is still worth checking out – lead single ‘Who’ in particular. Though straight-forward by St. Vincent standards, the song is infectiously fun, focusing on the interplay between Byrne and Clark’s vocals. And come on, it’s Annie Clark and David Byrne – how can you not love it?

‘Digital Witness’ (from St. Vincent)

The fact that St. Vincent’s fourth album is self-titled really says it all; this is St. Vincent’s sound without any moderation or compromise – none of the weirdness held back. Just like on Strange Mercy, Clark is fully confident in her sound here, leading to some truly great tracks like ‘Digital Witness’. The song, St. Vincent’s biggest hit to date, carries over some of the brass instruments from Love This Giant, using them to create an alien atmosphere rather than a jazzy one. The lyrics are also some of the artist’s best, with Clark labelling television viewers as ‘digital witnesses’ – addressing the strangeness of how TV allows us to feel connected and involved in events that have nothing to do with us. ‘Digital Witness’ demonstrates how St. Vincent, with all her strangeness, can be incredibly poppy and accessible as well.

‘I Prefer Your Love’ (from St. Vincent)

Through these songs, I’ve painted Clark as someone who excels at strangeness – exploring sounds and ideas that other artists might not touch… But as this track shows, she’s also incredibly good at writing songs that are beautiful in a much more simple and pure way. Written for her mother, ‘I Prefer Your Love’ uses St. Vincent’s usual instrumental palette to create a gentle mood rather than an aggressive one, with lyrics that are straight-forwardly moving rather than clever: ‘All the good in me is because of you’. It strips back Clark’s St. Vincent persona in a way, being an incredibly personal moment. It’s a real album highlight, demonstrating her fantastic range as an artist.

Give these songs a listen through the playlist below, and be sure to look out for a review of St. Vincent’s new album sometime soon…

 

Wolf Alice – Visions Of A Life

Ah, Wolf Alice… Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve got to admire them. On their first album, they refused to be pigeonholed into any one genre, covering everything from fuzzy garage rock to dream pop and shoegaze. Compare the woozy and poppy ‘Bros’ with the snarling and distorted ‘Giant Peach’ and it’s kind of hard to tell they’re both from the same band. An album that changes its sound so drastically with every song shouldn’t work, but somehow My Love Is Cool did.

Visions Of A Life follows the same basic formula, retaining the same scattershot style. Though Wolf Alice do stretch out into a couple new genres across the album (‘Sadboy’ has an almost folk-rock feel to it), a lot of the songs here do feel like they could’ve sat on the band’s debut.

And overall, it’s a good, solid – if sometimes uneven – album. There are plenty of great songs here, such as the breezy and incredibly catchy ‘Beautifully Unconventional’. It’s a cutesy pop song thats only real fault is it only lasts two minutes – though I suppose it’s better than if it overstayed its welcome. ‘Heavenward’ is another highlight, one of the band’s dreamiest efforts to date. On it, Ellie Roswell addresses a deceased friend with some of the most moving lyrics the band have put out: ‘Yeah, I’m gonna celebrate you forever / And long to see you when it’s my turn.’ There are also plenty of great rock songs on the album as well, particularly ‘Formidable Cool’, on which Roswell sings about a woman seduced into a Charles Manson-like cult. Like ‘You’re A Germ’ from My Love Is Cool, it plays off the contrast between her smooth whispering vocal style and much harsher one. It’s an unusual track, but the band pull it off incredibly well.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the album though is Roswell’s embrace of stream of consciousness style lyrics. There’s definitely a loose feel to the writing on Visions Of A Life, and it leads to some really great songs like lead single ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’. Though the song borders on being sappy – with Roswell rambling about a crush in an ad-lib style – it’s really hard not to love. It’s goofy and cliché-ridden (‘I might as well write over my notebook that you rock my world’), but it’s aware that it is and aware that having a crush on someone is a lot like that. It’s the sort of song that you want to hate, but really can’t help but like.

‘Sky Musings’ employs a similar stream of consciousness style, but adopts a much darker tone. The dreamy guitars on ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ are replaced with an ominous drumbeat, with Roswell lyric focusing on plane flight anxiety rather than love. The instrumentation and the lyrics really gel well together, creating a unique mood. ‘Yuk Foo’ is another track with an unmoderated feel to its lyrics, though in my opinion, it’s a lot less successful than ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’ and ‘Sky Musings’. It comes across as too immature and childish (I mean, you just need to look at the title…), not really saying anything particularly interesting.

As expected, Wolf Alice don’t really make an effort to narrow down their sound on Visions Of A Life, instead complicating it even further. And that’s not a bad thing. While the album falters on a few tracks, it’s a fun ride overall and the highs are definitely high enough to make it worth a listen.

Best Tracks: ‘Beautifully Unconventional’, ‘Don’t Delete The Kisses’, ‘Formidable Cool’

 

The Sherlocks – Live for the Moment

It’s ironic; the main problem I have with Live for the Moment, the debut album from UK indie rockers The Sherlocks, is that it doesn’t feel like the band are living for the moment. On the album, the band suffer from sounding like just about every other popular UK indie rock act (Catfish and the Bottlemen, The Kooks, Sundara Karma…) It’s in the tone of the guitars, Kiaran Cook’s vocals and especially the lyrics, which focus on what it’s like to be aimless and young. They don’t do much to try and stand out from the crowd and because of this, you’ll feel like you’ve heard most of their songs before.

That’s not to say that it’s an awful album – there are definitely some decent songs here. Tracks like ‘Chasing Shadows’ and ‘Last Night’ are undeniably catchy and fun, featuring some energetic performances from Crook. However, taken as a whole Live for the Moment just falls kind of flat. The band’s best songs are fun in short bursts – easy to chuck on a playlist – but listening through twelve tracks worth of The Sherlock’s sound can get a little bit dull. In only takes a few songs for déjà vu to kick in; everything just runs together a bit. The band come across as incredibly unwilling to leave their comfort zone on the album, instead of sticking to the same sound track after track (throwing in an acoustic intro here and a dramatic strings outro there).

There are some flickers of creativity and experimentation on the album, but The Sherlocks always shy away before things get too interesting. The piano riff in the second half of ‘Escapade’, the harmonica and strings on ‘Turn the Clock’, the back-and-forth vocals on ‘Last Night’… There are lots of interesting little moments like these scattered through Live for the Moment, but the band always fall back to standard guitar-heavy indie rock. ‘Nobody Knows’ is easily the album’s best track, if only because it’s the strangest one. Clocking in at just over six minutes, it shows the band breaking away from the classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure a little bit with a fantastic extended outro (I especially love the jangly guitars). It’s easily one of The Sherlock’s most adventurous moments.

But as I said before, unfortunately too much of the album feels routine. Every song here tells a story you’ve heard before, whether it’s a friend embarrassing themselves on a night out (‘Last Night’) or a young person trying hard not to overthink the future (‘Live for the Moment’), and features instrumentals that come across as run-of-the-mill. Despite their name, The Sherlocks are just about as straightforward as indie rock acts get.

Best Tracks: ‘Chasing Shadows’, ‘Nobody Knows’, ‘Last Night’