St. Vincent pairs unpredictability with careful staging at 9:30 Club


Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, performs at the first of two sold-out nights at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. Earlier this week, she released her self-titled fourth studio album to great critical acclaim. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)
March 2

As St. Vincent and her backing trio took the 9:30 Club stage Saturday night, a robotic-sounding voice asked the full house to “please refrain from digitally capturing your experience.” Fans of the singer-guitarist (a.k.a. Annie Clark) roared their approval — and then many of them pointed their phones toward the band to digitally capture their experience.

Going device-free is a challenge for today’s concertgoer — and for today’s pop musician. St. Vincent’s self-titled new album includes a song, “Digital Witness,” that chides people for documenting their unmemorable moments on Facebook, YouTube and such. But the sound of the album — the performer’s fourth — is heavily digital. Grimy electrobeats and glitchy synth-pulses industrialize the 11 songs, which divide roughly between clanking Bjork-like torch songs and more strutting material that shows the influence of “Love This Giant,” the musician’s horn-driven 2012 collaboration with David Byrne.

As recorded, St. Vincent’s latest songs are impressively crafted but excessively mannered; some of them seem to exist primarily as exercises in stylistic and timbral juxtaposition. The performer included nearly all the new tunes in her 21-song, 100-minute set, and they sounded unleashed — freer and less cluttered. The opening “Rattlesnake” (which also begins the album) was starker and hotter, befitting its “sweating sweating” refrain. “Birth in Reverse” and “Every Tear Disappears” were also sleeker and more spontaneous.

St. Vincent is neither a neo-folkie nor a pop tart. She forgoes confessional lyrics, coquettish sexuality — the 31-year-old sports a shock of gray hair reportedly inspired by Albert Einstein — and acoustic guitars. On Saturday, she played electric with confidence and versatility, invoking such classic rockers as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and Steve Howe. “Surgeon” featured pinpoint solos, “Huey Newton” shifted from anxious ballad to roaring headbanger, and several other numbers ended with rave-ups.

If the music was engagingly unpredictable, the set was carefully staged. All the singer’s between-song patter was scripted and her movements choreographed. She and keyboardist-guitarist Toko Yasuda struck Devo-like mechanistic poses and moved in tandem like a pair of moonwalking robo-models on a cyber-catwalk. Observers who were unaware that she’d been on tour with Byrne might have suspected that St. Vincent had spent much of 2013 in mime school.

Much of the stage business relied on a three-tiered platform. The singer lounged on the second level to purr “I prefer your love to Jesus” like a blasphemous Julie London. During “Prince Johnny,” she slipped down the riser as if she were a marionette whose strings had gone slack. But sometimes St. Vincent stood triumphantly at the very top, the audience’s guitar heroine and the protagonist of her own enigmatic drama.

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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