BY MARK GUARINO | THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
The sold-out crowd at the Riviera may not have expected what Annie Clark delivered Saturday. As St. Vincent, Clark presents an unusual visual: Sleek black dress, a shock of thick, silvery hair, and petite synchronization of her feet, moving backward and forward, while playing guitar.
Yes, there was a Stepford Wives aspect to the presentation — neat, manicured, precise. However, Clark stuffed those qualities into a cannon, lit the fuse and —boom! Here was the arrival of a new generation rock god packing thrills and daring you to look away.
Clark is on tour with a self-titled new album that is her most accessible. The baroque art-rock of her previous work is now filtered through dense rock guitar riffs, straightforward lyrics, and swooning vocal choruses. The transformation has not meant the music has lost its edge; on the contrary, the new songs present the perfect counterpoint between compelling weirdness and meat-and-potatoes proto-metal jamming.
The template here is Talking Heads, and other bands from the New Wave era that toyed with hoary rock conventions and turned them on their head. It’s no coincidence top Head David Byrne saw a kindred spirit in Clark and became her musical partner on an album and tour last year. Elements of that experience were inescapable Saturday: Clark married her songs with choreographed body movements — A wave of one hand, the mirrored movement by the next. There were also contorted body movements, each twist following a beat; for a fit of noise, she collapsed entirely, rolling down steps, or crawling on the floor.
She stopped making sense all right, aided by a live drummer, keyboardist-guitarist, and synthesizer player-slash-computer manipulator. Her band layered a science fiction sheen and helped power the big gestures of the music, particularly “Your Lips Are Red,” a storm of noise and distortion, and the digital interplay of “Birth in Reverse.”
A three-tier pink-shaded throne dominated the set, and Clark appeared atop it with guitar, striking just a single pose on “Cheerleader.” Unlike other guitar slingers, her gestures were much more constrained, her body movements extremely calculated. At the end of “Prince Johnny,” a lush and bittersweet love song, she extended the song with heavy guitar riffing, transforming the song into heavy funk, until she collapsed, handing a guitar off and melting down each step slowly like a silent film chanteuse.
Near the end, she returned to the stage and started the low-tuned beginning of Nirvana’s “Lithium,” performing the song presumably in tribute to Kurt Cobain, whose death reached the 20-year mark Saturday. The song didn’t sound out of place in a night of dissonant, but tightly controlled, guitar soloing.
The contrast came when Clark paused between songs to ask a litany of questions — “Do you ever look at your hands and think, ‘oh my god, these are my hands?’ — That came across a bit too much like a graduate art thesis. Ultimately, the more effective freeze-frame moment was during “Strange Mercy,” which she performed alone with guitar.
While Clark fingered through those blue chords, a male audience member broke the ice, yelling she was “gorgeous,” eliciting groans. A woman added a counterpoint, telling Clark she was “independently talented.” That’s more like it.