From The Polyphonic Spree to Sufjan Stevens, Annie Clark has been busy, and on her solo debut as St. Vincent, the multi-instrumentalist well marries 40’s-era Paris piano bar crooning to today’s high indietronica. Clark has always been an active musician, from having been a part of Glenn Branca’s famed 100 Guitar Orchestra to serving as the fifteen-year-old tour manager for her uncle, jazz musician Tuck Andress, but these last few years have been particularly hectic. In 2005, she joined the ‘only-two-digits-in-size’ choral alt-collective, The Polyphonic Spree, and quickly became a fan favorite, later contributing to the just-released The Fragile Army (QRO review). Last year, she was part of indie-Americana singer/songwriter Surfjan Stevens’ touring band, and has also opened for Television, The Arcade Fire, Midlake, and others. And now comes Marry Me, a showcase for her wonderful, diva-worthy voice, laid on top of a hectic jumble of instrumentation.
As St. Vincent, Annie Clark actually brings to mind a different uncle of hers, a great-uncle that was a lead prosecutor at Nuremburg, because Marry Me has a distinct ‘piano lounge in occupied Paris’-feel, where listening to the sad, soulful singing of the bar belle is the only way French and German alike can find a respite from the war. But it’s also updated with multi-instrumental lappop for today, where every city – ever life – is occupied and occupier, at war in its own way. This obviously comes through most clearly on “Paris Is Burning”, where the absolutely lovely crooning is also catchy, through all of its tempo changes.
But “Paris” is only the end-bracket on Marry Me’s strong first half. The record opens with its likely first single, “Now Now”, which is Björk-esque in its pretty techno keys and note-hitting vocals, but not as over-the-top (though beginning a solo debut record with a series of “I’m not…” statements can come off as a little self-important). Follower “Jesus Saves, I Spend” has more than just a great title, as its airy orchestral nature also has weight, if ironic weight, to go along with a great voice, while “Your Lips Are Red” is darker, with a pushing, driving bass drum. And the record’s title track has real power and honesty to go with a voice like a full-figured diva (back when that title meant something); even with the song’s matter-of-fact confessions, there’s no way John (the recipient of the request) wouldn’t marry Clark.
Unfortunately, the latter half of Marry Me is good, but not as good. “All My Stars Aligned” is similar to “Marry Me”, but a little less winning, a little too lovely. The following “Apocalypse Song” has a similar a-bit-too-cute problem, and Clark’s repeated shifts in rhythm begin to wear. That is even more apparent in “Landmines”, whose great voice, great shining parts, great sadder parts, and great lo-fi little marches all add up to something less than the sum of its great parts, thanks to poor changes. And Marry ender “What We Worry” gets the worst of the ‘too pretty’ problem, all sugar and no medicine, particularly the flute parts. Luckily, in-between “Landmines” and “Worry” is the humming little “Human Racing”, where bossanova meets sixties acoustic guitar prog-pop.
While Marry Me features appearances by Polyphonic Spree alumni like drummer (and ex-Man Or Astroman) Brian Teasley and French hornist Louis Schwadron, not to mention David Bowie’s longtime pianist Mike Garson to class up the joint, in the end, Annie Clark has to play multi-instrumentalist and make St. Vincent really just her. And while sometimes her changes get too much and her music gets too sweet, she sings and plays the kind of songs that even the Wehrmacht and the French Resistance would stop fighting for a spell to sit down together to hear.