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Monday, June 8, 2009

St. Vincent @ The Pabst Theater

June 5, 2009

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With her soothing, almost whispered vocals and quirky demeanor, St. Vincent’s frizzy-haired singer Annie Clark comes across as a calm, collected and cheerful performer, but don’t let her outer shell fool you. Listen closely to her lyrics and you’ll unravel frightful songs that drive to the core of human drama. Many tunes climax viciously with Clark shredding fuzzy, disjointed guitar solos.

The former Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens guitarist exhibited both of her divergent layers Friday night at the Pabst Theater when she opened with “Marry Me,” the title track from her 2007 debut. Singing as a desperate woman pleading a man to wed her, Clark’s insistence comes off as cute, but the underlying themes of stalking and imposed love are startling. She never forces the issue too hard, though, and leaves the crowd smiling. “Oh c’mon John/ We’ll do what Mary and Joseph did/ Without the kid.” She paused to snicker herself and thanked “those who still laugh at that joke.”

Last time Clark graced Milwaukee, she intimately opened for The National in 2007. Equipped with only a guitar and an assortment of pedals, she relied on looping to create her orchestral sound. This time around, she had the help of a four-piece band, which provided bass, drums, keys, clarinet and saxophone.

Clark succeeded Friday juxtaposing tranquility with terror, leaving the crowd unsure whether to relax or recoil. For example, “The Bed,” a quiet nighttime fairytale off Actor, St. Vincent’s latest album, begins as a bedtime story, but it flips the genre on its head when the narrator pulls out her father’s gun and orders the ghouls under the bed to stick their hands up. She was able to conjure similar bleakness on “Paris Is Burning,” “Actor Out of Work” and “Laughing With a Mouthful of Blood.”

Closing her set with “Your Lips Are Red,” the red-lipsticked Clark thrashed through a threatening solo, marking a heavy ending to an otherwise serene concert. That’s one thing that Clark loves to do—play with people’s expectations.

Photo credit: CJ Foeckler