St Vincent – ‘St Vincent’: Round 76 – Rob’s choice

St Vincent - St VincentMy album of the year. More than anything, just because we should be cheering the very fact of its existence. When something as perfectly formed, as carefully worked and just as damned flawlessly good as this comes along, we should be stopping what we’re doing and declaring national holidays. Instead, it seems somehow, as if this record has been strangely sidelined, as if the tastemakers are reaching the end of 2014 and saying ‘oh well, of course the St Vincent record is incredible. After all, she’s always been incredible, so why wouldn’t she produce an incredible record. And therefore, it doesn’t really count. Stick it somewhere half way down the list.”

Well, it does count. It counts for all sorts of reasons.

It counts for what she does with a guitar. She chops it, slices it, shreds it, chunks it, skings, kapows and blams it. She is, as far as I can tell, the most devastatingly brilliant guitarist currently playing this most played of instruments. She turns her guitar into a buzzing, blatting, beeswarm machine-gun, chopping out riffs and runs that sound like no-one else. What she does with a guitar is simultaneously so surgical, so acidic and so twisted as to sound barely like a guitar at all. I don’t care about musicianship in and of itself, but she makes me stop being so stupid and care about guitar playing. She is, let us be in no doubt, an absolutely unbelievable guitar player.

It counts for what she does with a pop song. Having started her career taking avant-garde headscapes and mashing them through the blender of her fender (Editor’s note: She actually plays a Musicman) she has, like some of my favourite artists of the last couple of years (hello Wild Beasts, Vampire Weekend) found ways to compress all of this wildness and willfulness into the boundaries of the three minute pop song. In doing so she has shown just how much more we could and should be expecting from everyone making records. The tracks on ‘St Vincent’ reference contemporary pop, rock and RnB left, right and centre, but they are simultaneously as challenging, other-worldly and head-mashing as the best of those genres. About half of them are just total bangers too.

It counts for what she does with sound. Not just what she does with the sounds of her guitar, but right through this record lie scattered gorgeous details. Her voice breaks into grains, toughens up, ascends and dives, as wild yet expertly controlled as her guitar. Sometimes we’re left with a ticking beat to luxuriate in, at others we’re overwhelmed by a tornado of noise. Everything in between is deliberate and perfectly placed. One of my moments of the musical year is when ‘Digital Witness’ really boots up heading into its chorus and sweeps you off your feet. It’s like to moment you step onto the moving walkway in an airport. There’s a tender but forceful whoosh. The more you listen, the harder it is to say how she does it, but she does it, every time.

It counts for what she does with a composition. ‘Bring Me Your Love’ brings together an amazing drum performance with numerous dizzyingly brilliant flavours of guitar playing and then adds in a vocal cadence which seems initially to make no sense, then turns out to be perfect, plus, for good measure, some incredible voice performance (“I thought you were like a dog…”). Every single element of this piece is amazing. Brought together, they make a super-amazing song. Which is mega-amazing.

We should be grateful that there are artists out there making music quite as accomplished as this. Which is not to say that this is merely an impressive achievement in some abstract technical terms. It’s the real deal. Smart, affecting, dazzling, accessible, funny, funky, rocking, rolling, riding. A record we can all be proud of. Sometimes, someone just gets it so right that all we can do is step back and cheer. This is one of those. A solid gold, back-of-the-net winner.

Nick listened: I’ve been a fan of St Vincent since Actor, and think this record is fabulous for all the reasons Rob has outlined. It’s easily one of the records I’ve enjoyed most over the last 12 months. It’s an immaculately-crafted piece of artful pop; clever, fun, interesting and full of brilliant ideas at every turn, and it feels like an important and significant levelling-up of an already really, really good musician. And yet… and yet… I can’t quite bring myself to ‘love’ it enough to call it my favourite. Annie Clark’s always been a little performative and arch, knowing and subversive, and I wonder if this translates, to my ears, as a slight emotional reserve, which, while it doesn’t temper the obvious musical brilliance on show, does affect my ability to connect. The Sharon Van Etten album, for example, is nowhere near as exciting to me musically, but I feel much more connected to it emotionally. (I probably do prefer St Vincent though, just.) Thinking about it, though, I feel much the same about her other records; they’re wonderful objects, brilliant things, like beautifully-designed chairs or fabulous bits of architecture. Which is great (I love beautifully-designed things), but leaves me just a little unsatisfied for some reason.

Tom listened: I’ve been a fan of St Vincent since Actor too but, mainly due to the astronomically inflated price of the vinyl version (£27 when I last checked), I hadn’t bothered with her latest offering. I was also put off a little by the fact that Strange Mercy and me never quite hit it off. Then there were those lyrics from lead single Birth in Reverse which seemed too calculated, too considered, too ‘let me shock you’. I was a little weary and more than a little wary that Annie Clark’s fourth album would be another step down from the triumph that was Actor.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong. In my opinion one of the only missteps of ‘St Vincent the album’ has been the choice of singles – they seem to me to be a little St Vincent by numbers, echoing past melodies too closely and not really doing that much different sonically from what had come before. The deeper cuts in the album, however, were often astonishing and, crucially, took me a long way away from the standard St Vincent song template that I heard in the singles. So, I started off listening sceptically but by the end of the album the combination of Annie and Rob had almost completely won me over.

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Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel etc: Round 42 – Tom’s Selection

FionaAppleIdlerWheel600GbAs we reach the end of another paltry year of contemporary purchases for me and the end of year lists are pouring in full of albums I’ve never heard of by outfits I’ve never heard of, I’m more unsure than ever of the worth of the process. You see, I could easily come up with a list of THE top ten albums from this year but it would include the majority of current albums I’ve got to know well over the last 12 months. If I were to post said list, I’m sure any reader would assume I had devoured far more music than I actually have and would not realise that my number 10 would represent a scraping of the barrel rather than a glittering jewel plucked from a huge vault of varied and comprehensive listening. At the other end of the spectrum are those lists that are so long they beggar belief – how can anyone get properly acquainted with 100+ albums in a year? Yet you regularly see lists of this length made by a single person! Do they do anything other than make lists while sitting around their stereo all night long? Probably not. Either that or (whisper it) they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

That said, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I don’t avidly follow the lists at this time of year scouring them to find that undiscovered gem I had previously overlooked or been unaware of. And as this is a time of giving as much as receiving it’s only right that I do my bit to contribute to the end of year thing. So…just in case you’ve lived in a cave over the last 12 months, have not followed the reviews or just think you happen to dislike this sort of thing, Fiona Apple released an album in June…and that’s my album of 2012 (and I’m fairly confident about this). It’s called: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (not sure these album titles do her any favours). I would urge you to listen to it. You may well find it not to your taste, and that’s fine, but I think you should definitely check it out. I say this, not because I’ve listened to hundreds of new albums this year but because I think it’s a remarkable album – brutal and subtle, always interesting and unsettling even if it veers tantalisingly close to ‘kooky’ territory at times (too close for some, perhaps). This is the first Fiona Apple album I’ve owned but it will probably not be the last.

The last time I heard a solo female artist sound this confident and instinctive on a record was on St Vincent’s second album Actor. The two albums don’t sound that alike really but they share an honesty and a lack of self-consciousness that enable the songs to reach parts that more considered records (see Strange Mercy) do not.  But whereas Actor has moments of sonic assault, it seems to me that The Idler Wheel is all about space, momentum and the balance between simplicity and complexity which seem to coexist simultaneously on many of the songs. Check out Periphery, Johnathan, Werewolf, Every Single Night…that’s practically half the album already! All these songs have such spartan instrumentation, often just a piano plonking away every now and then – it’s the melody lines and Apple’s (exquisite) singing that lift the song from the ordinary to the frequently extraordinary. That and the astonishing drumming that reaches it’s zenith on the album’s breathtaking closer Hot Knife which, for the most part, is just a drum, Apple and her sister Maude Maggart. This was a joker track (songs that we have to listen to properly..although you are allowed to check the football scores during them, apparently) for which nobody needed to be instructed not to speak! It’s a cracking end to a cracking album and if you can find a record from 2012 that I (and my family for that matter) prefer you’ll be doing well. Maybe the answer lies in those end of year lists. Then again, maybe not!

Nick listened: I bought Fiona Apple’s debut album many, many years ago, I think on the advice of my older brother after enjoying her cover of Across The Universe. I quite liked it, as I recall, but haven’t played it in many years – I suspect it was a victim of the post-adolescent indie boy’s fear of women. I’ll be revisiting it soon to reasses.

Because this was awesome; several times during the playback I said “this is a jazz album!” and, with its minimal arrangements, sense of musical freedom and unusual chords, it certainly felt closer to jazz than mainstream pop. Apple’s vocals, almost scatting at points, add to the impression. I was intrigued and beguiled by The Idler Wheel, and I’ll be picking it up pretty soon, I think. PS. I did indeed pick up a copy, last week in The Drift; I also picked up Ekstasis by Julia Holter, which Tom played a track from. An expensive week’s listening!

Graham listened: Unfortunately I am a bit of a ‘Kooky Monster’ and offer short shrift to those that bend, rather than play within or completely break, the rules. An interesting listen but it fell outside my my boundaries on to the stony land of stuff I don’t try hard enough to appreciate.

Rob listened: I had Fiona Apple filed somewhere only slightly to the left of Alanis Morissette and due North of Liz Phair. To be honest, all I really knew about her was that she used to be a bit poppy, had gone a bit more left-field and kept getting mentions on Pitchfork, although i’d never really unravelled whether this was because they dug her or because she was having some sort of extended public breakdown.

I’m so pleased Tom sorted all that out for me. ‘The Idler Wheel’ clearly deserves all the plaudits it has received. Somehow both rich and sparse, it feels like creature who’s internal structures you can see working mysteriously away whilst it lives and breathes. We talked about how lazy it feels to compare female singer songwriters only to other female singer songwriters. To be fair, we’re probably equally lazy when it comes to comparing male performers too. I wonder, however, whether the reason we find ourselves invoking St Vincent and Merrill Garbus and Joanna Newsom when we listen to a record like this, is that women just happen to be making the most challenging and inventive music at the moment?

Loved it, will buy it.