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Album Review: St. Vincent's "Strange Mercy"

September 12, 2011 |  7:04 pm

  Album Review: St. Vincent's "Strange Mercy"

St. Vincent, the indie sprite also known as Annie Clark, has been seen on the Internet getting her hands dirty, or at least her guitar. In May, a video circulated of her lusty, spiky cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene,” which finds her screaming over acid-rain riffing, “Set me on fire!”

Hailing from the pristine indie projects Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent’s own chamber pop compositions don’t need to be as raw as Big Black, but she could stand to borrow a little bit of its gasoline.

Over the course of two albums, St. Vincent has laid down a body of work that often hinges on ornate details and thoughtful flourishes. On her third work, “Strange Mercy,” her facility with song craft is no less compelling for its cerebral beauty, but too often that cool, constructed quality stands between its maker and the wild bramble of the song. When St. Vincent sings about heartache on “Cheerleader,” it feels like the idea of emotion but not the messy thing itself. In “Dilettante,” she complains, “You’re like a party I heard through a wall,” a gripe she could lodge at her own artful distance.

As stiflingly pretty as it may be sometimes, “Strange Mercy” thrives on its textural surprises. “Hysterical Strength” opens with a nervous tic of a synth line; one imagines an ’80s Camaro snaking around the Hollywood Hills on a drug run. “Cruel” blazes with some of the same mercurial guitar she showed in that Big Black cover. Maybe there’s a Molotov cocktail burning in St. Vincent just yet.

St. Vincent

"Strange Mercy"

(4AD)

Two and a half stars (out of four)

--Margaret Wappler

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