St. Vincent – “MASSEDUCTION”

(Photo Credit: Northern Transmissions)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Pills,” “Sugarboy,” “Young Lover”

Annie Clark has big shoes to fill. Her last album, 2014’s “St. Vincent,” was consistently ranked among the best albums of the year, a busy year. The album saw her rise from indie darling touring the festival circuit to playing the season finale of “SNL” and winning a semi-surprise Best Alternative Album at the Grammy’s (ironically, presumed winner Beck also released a new album this week). After all that, “St. Vincent” is my favorite album. Like, ever. All-time. Has been for three years. So “MASSEDUCTION” has high hurdles to clear and, to our baited breaths, it jumps over those hurdles in every way that Annie Clark can think of.

Don’t let opening track “Hang On Me” and lead single “New York” fool you – this is a big album. At 13 tracks and 41 minutes, it packs a whole boxer’s array of punches. Although the opening song is inexplicably lackluster, the album kicks into high gear with the guitar-heavy satire “Pills.” The track’s fuzzy, chomping guitar sounds like an “Actor” lost cut. One of the album’s few disappointments is that this is really the only track where Clark lets loose on guitar, something she still does a little infrequently. But when the album that follows is as good as it is, it’s hardly even missed.

Other standout tracks include “Sugarboy,” with a super catchy and choppy beat that’s sure to rip through audiences in her live show. “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is a slight ballad with some unexpected country slide-guitar, stuck right in the middle of the album. “Savior” is a funky and sexy pop song, but one that includes industrial elements (although he doesn’t have a songwriting credit, the album was co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who cowrote and produced a similar, excellent song on Lorde’s album earlier this year). “Fear The Future” hits super hard after the emotional but slight “New York,” with a deafening sound and incredibly anxious lyrics. “Young Lover,” the tenth track, seems like the beginning of the wind-down as, frankly, the song’s first section is dull. But it transforms into a full-bloomed vocal track, the best of the album and one of the best in Clark’s discography. The album’s final song “Smoking Section” is a satisfying conclusion, with Clark repeating “it’s not the end.” The song’s title and placement might be a reference to David Sedaris’s classic essay “The Smoking Section” – let us not forget that Clark’s debut contained references to “Arrested Development” and MAD Magazine.

“MASSEDUCTION” is not without fault, of course. There are rare moments of downtime, in tracks like “Hang On Me,” “Slow Disco,” and, to a lesser extent, the title track. There is also a palpable lack of guitar wizardry. Although Clark’s guitar pops up throughout, the album generally lacks the riffs designed to pummel live audiences to their core. It’s a confounding stylistic choice for someone who is becoming known as one of the best live acts. Still, audiences haven’t seen these songs performed yet, so who’s to say what Clark has planned (also, she’s just free to record whatever she wants, maybe she’s just tired of guitar).

Although not her best overall, this album stands as easily the most cohesive record in the St. Vincent discography. It has the fewest amount of skippable tracks (there’s only two that I’d even consider and I’ve *just* listened to it), it has everything from anxious noise about the future to industrial-funk to genuinely beautiful ballads to satire about the medical industry. I’ve written (in a few places, extensively, sorry) about the impact that Clark’s 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, “Love This Giant,” seemed to have on her confidence as a performer. That newfound confidence shines throughout this entire record, front (back?) and foremost with that album cover. Clark has always been an interesting songwriter, but this album continues her trend of pushing listeners out of their comfort zone with the frequent genre changes and occasionally uncomfortable lyrics.

This album is a borderline-masterpiece, if not one outright. Although it lacks specifically-standout songs like all of her other albums (“Rattlesnake” & “Birth In Reverse,” “Cruel” & “Surgeon,” “The Neighbors” & “Marrow,” “Now, Now” & “Your Lips Are Red), it works as a huge cohesive unit that really doesn’t have much time to cut. It’s a challenging pop album, asking the listener to accept satire, sorrow and directly sexual lyrics amidst their catchy music. This album feels like all of the highs, lows and middles that Clark has been living since and possibly before her last album. This album was likely going to be the one that people really judged Clark on. Her last album is, for all intents and purposes, a breakthrough – so the eye was on what she would do with the exposure. And if this album is what Clark can do under the pressure, then it’s safe to say we’re welcoming in a new legend.

-By Andrew McNally

St. Vincent – “St. Vincent”

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Birth In Reverse” “Prince Johnny”

St. Vincent’s previous album, the 2012 duet with David Byrne “Love This Giant,” got a little more of a mixed reaction than her previous three albums. But I haven’t stopped listening to the record – I know the whole album by heart. On the album, Byrne takes St. Vincent, moniker for the multi-talented Annie Clark, and brings her out of her comfort zone. Her previous albums were already wholly separate from anything else happening in alternative, but with Byrne’s introduction of horns and a bigger accompaniment, he brought her out of her timidity and almost forced her to take bigger and more fearless risks. Pictured above is Annie Clark, once slightly awkward in old Youtube clips, now purple-haired, staring down at us. “St. Vincent” is bolder and more fulfilling than any of her previous albums – and that’s not exactly a small statement.

Before I get to into the album, I should say, as I have said when necessary, that I am a huge huge St. Vincent fan. I learned “Birth in Reverse” by heart within 24 hours of it’s release. This year and last, I’ve spent Feb. 14th celebrating St. Vincentines Day, an excuse to get away from any standards usually set towards that date. And as I write this, I sit anxiously knowing I’ll be seeing her in ten days. If you’re reading this in Boston, look for me at the show, screaming, singing and just generally embarrassing myself.

So, “St. Vincent” is a step in a new direction. It’s bolder, and although it technically isn’t all that different from her other works, it has a more boundless feeling to it. Without really changing her sound, she has managed to still take herself in a new direction. That’s no more apparent than on the album’s best song, “Birth In Reverse.” The rough, almost factory-machine opening is a staunch stance against most other reserved indie singers. The song’s opening lyrics: “Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate” don’t exactly hurt that stance. St. Vincent has never been one to shy away from topics that might be taboo or a little warped, but on “St. Vincent,” she sounds more confident than she ever has. And with songs like “I Prefer Your Love,” with a chorus centered around “I prefer your love / To Jesus,” confidence is a needed trait.

As a fan of every one of St. Vincent’s albums, I have felt that the latter halves often don’t hold up to the former halves – whether because they’re a little too slow, or the mix of synth and guitar does not hold up as well. But “St. Vincent” is just solid throughout. The album’s first half is definitely better – all three of the pre-released songs are in the first five – but there are few forgettable moments. As always, she combines a heavy amount of synthesizers with her underrated guitar work. It works well across the album, but might work the best on the penultimate “Every Tear Disappears.” Only the guitar-heavy “Regret” and the midtempo closer “Severed Crossed Fingers” lag behind the rest of the tracks, not quite as original or memorable.

Although a strong singer in her own right, St. Vincent’s songs usually focus more on the music and lyrics. But there’s one song on this album, “Prince Johnny,” that’s worth mentioning for the vocals. The song builds to a long climax that’s beautifully sung, and drenched in an encompassing vocal echo that’s almost bone-chilling. It’s refreshing, in a way, to hear Clark finally devote a song more towards her vocals. Clark’s voice has never sounded even close to subpar – but a song like “Prince Johnny” has been needed for a while.

This album’s eponymous naming was kind of a happy accident, but it’s very fitting. This album is what St. Vincent does best – synthy, guitar-heavy indie-pop; equally weird and beautiful, in the best ways of both. And it’s self-titled, because it’s her best album yet. Each song is unique. Some simple, some complex, all great. I know it’s only February, but I’d wager that this will go down as one of the best alternative albums of 2014.

If you like this, try: The National’s “Trouble Will Find Me.” Maybe it came to mind because Clark herself provides back-up vocals on the album’s/band’s/2013’s best song, “Sea of Love.” But the album is related in that it’s similar to everything they have done prior, but just even better.

-By Andrew McNally

The Polyphonic Spree – “Yes, It’s True”

(Photo Credit: Glide Magazine)

Grade: B+

Key Tracks: “Popular By Design,” “Blurry Up the Lines”

“Yes, It’s True” is the fourth album from the vocal-heavy choral-pop-rock band, a genre that is a lot more conventional and a lot less gospel-influenced than it sounds. The Polyphonic Spree currently sits at twenty members, although the album does at times resemble a normal-sized group. The album is heavy on engrossing music and light on inspiring lyrics, but is frequently worthwhile. Former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter is in total control on this album, perhaps even too much. The collective playing behind him is under his spell, following him through his mixed influences.

The album always falls closer to pop than any other genre. Each track plays out like a typical single from one of DeLaughter’s inspirations, from the Beach Boys to Bright Eyes. “Single” is the important word there, though, because every song on the album is “single” standard. In fact, the album’s lead-off single, “You Don’t Know Me,” is not among the album’s better songs. The music on the album is often standard, fun vocal pop. It is a market that has been tapped many times before, but as long as the product is catchy and retains a little depth, it can be done again and again. There are a few tracks were DeLaughter does a back-and-forth in the chorus, exchanging solo lines with group lines from the musicians. It’s all very fun and inspired. The final track, “Battlefield,” ends with an extended synth fade-out that is meant to sound ominous, but almost comes off as anticipation for wanting to record another album.

Lyrically, the album doesn’t hold up nearly as well. Track titles like “Carefully Try” and “Let Them Be” don’t prepare to offer much lyrically. There is nothing more than basic pop poetry here, which can get repetitive. They even sound less inspired alongside the music. It’s rarely an issue, because the album has enough good spirit to make up for this. Also, pop albums nowadays do not seem to be expected to be poetic masterpieces, so it’s expected in a warped way.

Twenty-piece choral-pop groups are hard to come by, but The Polyphonic Spree are doing something right. They may be a collective – their ‘former members’ page on Wikipedia includes forty-five people, one of them being Annie Clark from St. Vincent – but they are having fun in the studio. And when it comes down to it, that is the key to a successful pop group. Things might not work, but if the listener believes enough in the band, they can look past it. And it is very easy to surpass the faults on “Yes, It’s True” and just enjoy the ride.

If you like this, try: “Here” (2012), the second album by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes. The best of their three, and one that includes a surprising variation of influences into a collective effort.

-By Andrew McNally