Monday, September 10, 2007

KQED Music: St. Vincent: What Saint Ain't

Listening to Marry Me, the excellent debut album by St. Vincent, a thought suddenly struck me: it must be very tiring to be Björk.

This isn't to say that St. Vincent, the recording name of American singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, sounds anything like Björk. In fact, she doesn't at all. Not one bit. Yet, and this is the crucial point, almost everything I read about her somehow shoehorns in a mention of the elfin Icelander (you can Google their names together to see for yourself).

Why? Because St. Vincent has committed the twin crimes of making music that deviates from standard-issue mid-range pop, and being female. And, as anyone who has taken Music Math 101 will know, "weird" plus "woman" almost always equals "Björk." (This is after extensive research revealed the previous answer of "Kate Bush" to be outdated, which is ironic as, in this case at least, the earlier comparison is probably closer to the mark.)

This formula holds true for just about every female singer/songwriter hanging around on the fun side of the fence right now. I have been enjoying a rich seam of music by women recently, from the mild, relatively mainstream kookiness of Feist, through the progressively more out-there recent recordings of Regina Spektor, all the way to the genuinely awesome French loopiness of Camille Dalmais. They all share two things: an admirable streak of fearless individualism and a tendency to be mentioned in the same sentence as a certain recording artiste from Reykjavik.

The "B" word has become a lazy shorthand for describing any female musician who dares to deviate from the norm, which is a shame. In reality, the only thing the singular musicians mentioned have in common -- Björk included -- is a creativity that conversely makes them sound different from anyone else and each other. Their music defies easy comparisons, which is probably why they all get lumped together.

Of course, I'm aware that this blog is committing exactly the same sin. However, I'm willing to take one for the team in the fight for the greater good. Starting by encouraging you to go out and buy St. Vincent's album Marry Me, to discover its unique charms for yourself.

This relatively short, 11-track album, contains more bewitching and delightful twists and turns than most musicians manage in their whole career. I lost track of the amount of things it reminded me of: the drama of Portishead or James Bond theme music, the theatrical flourishes of Rufus Wainright or Antony and the Johnsons, the beguiling artiness of Talk Talk or Charlotte Gainsbourg, even the contrasting vocal stylings of both Ella Fitzergald and Billie Holiday (remarkably in the space of one song, album closer "What Me Worry?"). I could go on, except you will probably hear a completely different list than mine. Suffice it to say that every influence I heard, whether real or imagined, I also liked.

Put it all together and you get St. Vincent, who is that rare thing: a genuinely new voice in a world that sounds increasingly homogenic. And, no, I don't mean the Björk album...

'Marry Me' is out now on Beggars Banquet. St. Vincent will be appearing with The National at The Grand Ballroom on September 29, 2007.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.