At the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, a pair of giant orbs stood near the food tents. Inside were circular dance rooms. But the attempt at transporting listeners to another realm via space-age domes of dance simply dropped festival-goers into mini, Hollywood-like clubs. Back outside and gimmick-free, a trio of artists used a different approach, moving fans with their music -- and did it with a traditional instrument known as the guitar.
Annie Clark is diminutive and soft-spoken. More than soft spoken, rather, she is a careful speaker. Her thoughts aren’t said so much as crafted. As St. Vincent, Clark is something else entirely, equally frightful, high-strung and hostile. At Coachella, Clark was in full guitar slayer mode. Her songs are based around melodies that could have been lifted from a nursery rhyme, but Clark rips them apart one shard at a time, like an animal toying with its prey.
Introducing songs, Clark told the Coachella crowd that “this next one is inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s personal writings” (“Surgeon"), and then later: “You guys can totally dance to this one” (“Marrow”). Yet the rhythm was more spastic than it was a comfortable beat, and both songs sounded as if they were conjured from a dream. Clark’s guitar, which she struck, teased and stretched out one string at a time, was the nightmare interrupting.
Across the field, James Mercer was leading his retooled Shins through a set on the mainstage. When it comes to hooks and melodies, the Shins don’t try to distort or hide them, but the band comes at them patiently. The most current lineup is adept at shading, filling every melodic crest and fall with brightly twinkling textures.
It added a touch of magic to the act's repertoire, and it was fitting, then, that the band tackled Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” It brought a quartet of audience members, outfitted as wizards (of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”-ilk), to its feet, and the group swayed and grooved to the slow-moving reverie.
Depending on where one walked on the Coachella grounds, the Shins would soon be drowned out. The artist bleeding into the band’s refined arrangements was Feist, the Canadian singer-songwriter who made it clear that she’s left behind her more polite past.
“The Bad in Each Other” constructed its rhythm as if in a panic. Later, “Graveyard” was built around ghostly backing harmonies, courtesy of Mountain Man, and a full horn and string section, sounds from which seemed to hover rather than flow.
Feist doesn’t let things get too serious, however. If one wasn’t paying close attention during “Caught A Long Wind,” you’d miss her joking that the song was actually an outtake from Dr.Dre’s “The Chronic,” the solo debut from Coachella’s Sunday night headliner.
A quick laugh, and then she was on to “Undiscovered First,” in which rhythms sound as if they’re trying to build a fire and her guitar slithers like a rattlesnake. Her voice trailed into a violin strand as she asked, “Is it wrong to want more?” It’s a question all three artists sought to answer in their work.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Annie Clark of St. Vincent performs at the Empire Polo Field during Day 2 of the 2012 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio. Credit: Karl Walter / Getty Images for Coachella