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A Gentle Mind And An Iron Spine: St. Vincent's 'Actor' Turns 10

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A Gentle Mind And An Iron Spine: St. Vincent's 'Actor' Turns 10

On Annie Clark’s second album, her occasionally orchestral weirdo-pop was as fully formed as it would be on 2011's slower 'Strange Mercy' and 2014's hard-rocking 'St. Vincent,' and 2017's GRAMMY-winning 'MASSEDUCTION'

GRAMMYs/May 10, 2019 - 01:22 am

Annie Clark is one of those people so talented it seems besides the point to mention it. But why shouldn’t we? She's so demure; let’s embarrass her. Not one of her five albums as St. Vincent (nor her undervalued David Byrne collaboration) ever sounds less than in complete control of its vision. Not one ever comes off like her uncanny, 12-dimensional chops need a lift from a sideperson. Not one struggles to get to where it appears to be going, which is all we have to go on, really. Clark is definitely the only person with the map to her art.

Those looking to retrace her steps could start with 2007's Marry Me, a more than respectable debut that leads with maybe her prettiest song, the guitar-harmonic hall of mirrors "Now, Now." And certainly anyone looking to dive in should know 2017's GRAMMY-winning MASSEDUCTION, which was as shiny and kinky as a pair of vinyl boots, the closest thing she could conjure to a pop record, and endearingly twisted for such a prospect. But her second album, Actor, which just turned 10, is probably where to acquaint yourself with one of the most prominent architects of both alt-rock and art-rock alike in the past decade.

Clark gets compared to Björk plenty in her, shall we say... iconoclasticity. But it took even Björk a bit longer to arrive at her true home planet. On Clark’s second album, her occasionally orchestral weirdo-pop was as fully formed as it would be on 2011's slower Strange Mercy and 2014's hard-rocking St. Vincent, all works of an artist constantly progressing but never clearly towards what. A lavishly arranged symphonic like 2009's "The Party" normally takes alt-rockers much longer to work up the sophistication for. But Clark navigates it without breaking a sweat, which is in jarring contrast to two lyrical themes constant throughout her career: the twin phantoms of helplessness and, if you can believe it, impostor syndrome.

Actor's "Save Me From What I Want" didn’t appear much more resolved eight years later when Clark sang "I can turn off what turns me on" from MASSEDUCTION's title track. She makes no secret that she's in thrall to the pull of her desires, whatever they are, even if she’s grown more explicit and confident over time. The expensive sound-world she erected on Actor was still the work of someone inhabiting characters like the "wife in watercolors," bemused by the "ladies of the lawn" whose "children act like furniture" on "Black Rainbow." She always skews diagonal, leaving the listener to dictate that, as on 2011’s more pronounced "Cheerleader," Clark disdains (or simply can't conform to) archaic portraits of contented "normal" life.

So "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood" finds her "holed up at the Hotel Ritz with a televangelist," missing her brother and sister, wondering if the life of an art-rocker has too many halves to ever become whole. She fantasizes plenty, but it's only clear in retrospect that she may not have been always able to make MASSEDUCTION without the temerity of Actor and Strange Mercy first. Even St. Vincent's famous line from the sawtoothed single "Birth in Reverse" about taking out the garbage and masturbating now feels like she was making a declaration to herself, that if she can be such an audacious artist, she owes herself the same freedom as a person, too.

On Actor, we could hear that dichotomy loud and clear, when the aural tarantula fuzz of a song like "Marrow" can command a roomful of demented indie-rockers dancing while Clark literally spells out, "H-E-L-P / Help me." On the same song, she opined, "I wish I had a gentle mind and a spine made up of iron," which we can hope some Glenda the Good Witch has convinced the current Sleater-Kinney producer she had all along.

Actor's best song is just 135 seconds long, and "Actor Out of Work" is where she finally turns her emotions outward on a paramour who several times earns the compound observation "I think I love you, I think I’m mad." She could be talking to herself, sure. But more important, Clark and longtime producer John Congleton process the jagged synth lines until they bulge and distort like veins in a forehead. But what they signify is concentration, all this violence and loving and left-field vocal harmonies being made sense of, decrypting the code of Clark’s own feelings to download them to her guitar.

If we only traced the line of St. Vincent’s albums from art-rock to art-rock, we do know more about the auteur than we did 10 years ago, and she does too. Actor ended with "The Sequel," which foreshadowed the sexual rapture of MASSEDUCTION to come: "Bodies like wrecking balls f**k / F**k with dynamite." So we can celebrate the patient pizzicatos of "The Strangers" leading to the volcanoes of violin that finish off "Black Rainbow" for not just the dynamic fireworks of the impeccable arrangements but the tension that we know has resolved to some degree. Clark's music has become more successful and thus more shared; more people than ever are happy for her to steer them to the next destination. And if Actor and its four sibling albums are any indication, it’s going to be both weird and okay.

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Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith: Most Anticipated Fall Album?

Sam Smith

Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

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Nicki Minaj, Taylor Swift, Sam Smith: Most Anticipated Fall Album?

New albums from Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and St. Vincent also on the way this fall — which release are you most excited to hear?

GRAMMYs/Sep 13, 2017 - 12:16 am

2017 has been a big year already in music, especially for streaming, festivals and Latin pop. With summer sneaking into the rearview and stores filling up with Halloween paraphernalia, we want to know which upcoming fall album release you're looking forward to the most.

So here's your chance to be heard: From Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Taylor Swift to in-the-works new offerings by Sam Smith and Nicki Minaj, what's album are you looking forward to the most in fall 2017?:

 

Forget The Hearse: AC/DC's 'Back In Black' Turns 40

AC/DC in 1979

Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images

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Forget The Hearse: AC/DC's 'Back In Black' Turns 40

The classic-rock mainstays' seventh studio album—their first with Brian Johnson—took a longtime trope to its ultimate conclusion: Lead singers may succumb to mortality, but rock’n’roll would never

GRAMMYs/Jul 22, 2020 - 09:12 pm

Back In Black is not a perfect album, but it may be the perfect rock album. What does that say about rock? Probably something about its built-in sexism circa 1980, with the level of horniness both constant and complacent for a band this elemental, more akin to a hostile work environment or catcalling or "locker room talk" than any singular artistic expression of coitus or the overpowering desire for it. "You Shook Me All Night Long"—which is not at all a bad choice for the best rock'n'roll song of all time—transcends the petty bra-snapping of surroundings like "Given the Dog a Bone" and "What You Do for Money Honey" by not only giving their object of desire some description ("American thighs" is probably their most important contribution to our language) but even some dialogue ("she told me to come but I was already there"—bummer). You're not going to get apologies from a band who recorded and released their comeback album in all of five months after their lead singer died. Especially not when his replacement literally sings the words "I never die," as if explaining why he's more cut out for the position. So I digress.

AC/DC's 50-times-platinum masterpiece (25 million of which were shipped domestic) could be the definitive rock album simply for being equidistant from Led Zeppelin IV and Nevermind, in some kind of sales apex window that also includes the EaglesGreatest Hits and Michael Jackson's Thriller but also probably tops the curve by being so meat and potatoes there might not even be spuds. Kick, snare, kick, snare, kick, snare is rarely as primitive or as powerful as when "You Shook Me All Night Long" loses its intro like tearaway pants. Slow it down to what we now know to be hip-hop speed and you get "Back In Black," a noncontroversial nomination for the greatest guitar riff of all time, which only Wayne Campbell can really decide. Ease it down even more and you get the hungover, bluesy crawl of "Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution," which didn’t really catch on as a bumper sticker but trudges the album to a close with the confidence as if it did. Back In Black being 40 perfectly parallels its most loyal demographic being in their 60s, an always-in-lockstep cosplay of themselves 20 years younger.

Bon Scott choked on his vomit in the passenger seat after a drinking binge, and less than half a year later, the guy who filled his shoes sang "Have a Drink on Me." There wasn’t any real hesitation; if anything it weirded out the record company more when AC/DC were gonna make their album cover entirely black in tribute. (They were asked to at least provide an outline of the AC/DC logo over it; oh, branding.) Brian Johnson, the new guy, was tasked with writing a tribute song, but not "morbid," so "it has to be a celebration." What a job.

"Back In Black," though, the other song on this album that wouldn’t be a bad choice for the best rock’n’roll song of all time, more than fulfills this prophecy; we may as well go ahead and nominate it for the even more likely Best Riff of All Time award. Makes a great hip-hop song too, though you wouldn’t know it from any official releases since these knuckleheads are against sampling. Search YouTube to find Eminem and the Beastie Boys kicking it like the stomping groove deserves. But those lyrics, which along with "Hells Bells" and "Noise Pollution" comprise the album's only verbiage not directed at women, are the perhaps the only time AC/DC was ever mysterious or impressionistic. Given, Steven Tyler and Anthony Kiedis rap things like "nine lives, cat’s eyes" all the time. But for a band this literal, this nearly artless in their glandular pursuits, it’s Picasso.

AC/DC identified something in punk and new wave. From Led Zeppelin to Black Sabbath to Deep Purple and even Aerosmith at their most talk-box spacy, hard rock in the 1970s was celebrated for its psychedelic excess, its pretensions. Elongated, folksy mandolin intros. The simulated endlessness of drum soloing. "Jams." But while AC/DC surely imbibed plenty of the same substances, they ran a no-nonsense assembly line of riffs compiled like car parts into well-oiled machines, no dirt or mess. There’s definitely some Ramones in that. If not for Kiss, you might even be able to say they were the first of this kind, and that Back In Black may have foreseen the coldness of Reagan in its defiance of feeling; for a tribute to a fallen friend, they didn’t even allow a single ballad. "Back In Black" may as well be about how stylish they looked at Bon Scott’s funeral. But it’s clear that Scott wouldn’t have blinked; if anything he would’ve climbed out of the casket to shriek "Shoot to Thrill" himself. And in a way, Back in Black may have taken a longtime trope to its ultimate conclusion: Lead singers may succumb to mortality, but rock’n’roll would never.

He Stuck Around: Foo Fighters' Eponymous Debut Album Turns 25

Florence + The Machine To Re-Release 'Lungs' On Aug. 16, Debut Two Previously Unreleased Tracks

Florence Welch

Photo by Lillie Eiger

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Florence + The Machine To Re-Release 'Lungs' On Aug. 16, Debut Two Previously Unreleased Tracks

The 10th anniversary special edition of 'Lungs' features previously unheard material, B-sides and rarities, including two unreleased demos, "My Best Dress" and "Donkey Kosh," which are available to hear today

GRAMMYs/Jul 3, 2019 - 08:59 pm

GRAMMY-nominated pop/rock greats Florence + The Machine released their debut Lungs 10 years ago on July 6. In honor of that massive anniversary, the band has announced plans to release a special collector's box set and digital package on Aug. 16.

Lungs special edition features previously unheard material, B-sides and rarities, including two unreleased demos, "My Best Dress" and "Donkey Kosh," which are available to hear today. Check them out below.

In addition to the previously unheard material, the cloth-bound deluxe box set will include the original Lungs album on pink vinyl, as well as an LP of bonus material that, according to a release, has been curated by Florence herself that has never been available on vinyl before. There's also a rare acoustic version of "My Boy Builds Coffins" and a cover of "Oh! Darling" Live at Abbey Road. Finally, there will be postcards and inserts showcasing previously unseen images from the Lungs era.

Florence + The Machine were nominated for a Best New Artist GRAMMY in 2010, shortly following Lungs' release.

Pre-order Lungs 10th anniversary special edition here, and check out their ongoing European tour dates, featuring a performance in London's Hyde Park on July 13.

My Morning Jacket Planning 20th Anniversary 'The Tennessee Fire' Reissue

Cardi B, Rihanna, Rosalía & More: Which Artist's 2021 Album Are You Looking Forward To The Most?

Cardi B & Rihanna in 2019

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

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Cardi B, Rihanna, Rosalía & More: Which Artist's 2021 Album Are You Looking Forward To The Most?

With a new year comes new music. Vote on the album you can't wait for in our latest poll

GRAMMYs/Jan 20, 2021 - 04:26 am

We're only three weeks into 2021, which means we have plenty of time left for new music releases. There are already some big albums confirmed and many more TBD ( based on artists' hints in interviews and social posts).

While Rihanna's long-awaited, "dangerously anticipated" ninth LP may be gifted to fans this year, it seems very likely music lovers will also be granted new albums from Adele, Billie Eilish, Cardi B, Brazilian pop queen Anitta, Gwen Stefani, Lil Nas X, Kacey Musgraves, Sade, Rosalía, Lorde, and many more.

Let us know whose new album you are most excited to hear this year in our poll below:

Poll: What's Your 2021 Musical New Year's Resolution?