St. Vincent at Crescent Ballroom, 10/20/11

St. Vincent Crescent Ballroom Thursday, October 20

On the lightrail ride home, the words of a friend: "Do you think she was wearing that ring to ward off potential stalkers or is there something she isn't telling us?"

Sounds like a funny question, but it isn't all that unreasonable. St. Vincent, fronted by the elusive, beautiful Annie Clark, held the stone cold gaze of every woman and man packed into the Crescent Ballroom for last night's sold-out performance. I heard a couple guys joke about asking her to marry them. I bet she gets that a lot (and not just because that Arrested Development-quoting debut).

Actually, you know she gets that a lot. Clark's new album, Strange Mercy, feels like a reaction to being crowned "cutest indie rocker" award. Clark bears her teeth, embraces harsh dynamics, and shreds on the album, bringing the same gnashed intensity to her performance, all angular guitar riffs, flashing lights, throbbing synth bass, and a Pop Group cover.

It would be glib to reduce the show down to "I am woman, hear me roar." So I will avoid that. But for every cute lyric, like "I've had some good times with bad guys," there was a cutting one: "Oh America, can I owe you one?" "I don't want to be a cheerleader no more." "If I ever meet the dirty policeman who fucked you up" -- modified from the album's lesser "roughed you up".

Backed by a drummer, and two keyboardists/programmers, the guitar duties fell solely on Clark. She didn't seem to mind -- the ridiculous riffs and squealing solo in "Surgeon" set the tone right off the bat. "Cheerleader" rode on massive crests of distortion and cocky leads. It was mean and focused. The backing band expertly recreated the sounds of Strange Mercy (most of the songs were drawn from it), with booming synth bass, drums offset by electronic flourishes, and sampled vocals.

"Thank you, Phoenix," Clark said, twice, acknowledging near the end of her set the progression from Modified, to Rhythm Room, to Crescent. (She sold out shows at all three.)

Someone near me shouted out, "I love you Annie," and Clark responded with a cover of Pop Group's "She Is Beyond Good and Evil," a clanging, no-wave post-punk excursion that found Clark seething, "I'll hold you like a gun."

You would think that the experimental moves would alienate the crowd (and I half suspect that she intended them to?) but listeners were on board. The more violent and strange Clark got, the more people cheered. It was thick -- even the underage barricade was densely populated.

Of course art-rock moves are going to win critics and music nerds like me over, but what was astonishing was how they won over the casual fans. I stood by the merch table for a few songs, and watched as young fans picked up the new record (on LP, natch), with one teenaged girl holding it and just sort of staring at its cover. It's funny that Clark wishes in the song "Marrow" for a "gentle mind and a spine of steel." The former, I can see her still pining for, but there's little need for a new backbone.

Set List:

"Surgeon" "Cheerleader" "Save Me From What I Want" "Actor Out of Work" "Chloe in the Afternoon" "Cruel" "Just the Same But Brand New" "Champagne Year" "Neutered Fruit" "Strange Mercy" "She is Beyond Good and Evil" (Pop Group cover) "Northern Lights" "Year of the Tiger" "Marrow"


"The Party" "Your Lips Are Red"

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: St. Vincent at Crescent Ballroom

Better Than: Missing St. Vincent at Modified and Rhythm Room.

The Crowd: A few NPR rockers, lots of fashionable indie kids, a few partiers who showed up early for Boomstick in the Lounge.

Random Notebook Dump: "Unsettling." A word that described most of the band's set.

Overheard: "Is this the actual critic's notebook?" [Gesturing at my notebook].

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.