st. vincent – marry me

St. Vincent Marry Me
beggars banquet

it’s a largely accepted fact in 2014 that annie clark is a preeminent fixture of pop music; her eccentric guitar skills have become spectacle, over-saturated in fuzz distortion and often processed through synthesizers, while the depth of her songwriting has become increasingly formidable over the span of four albums.  but in 2007, clark had yet to solidify her musical identity as st. vincent.  she had done stints in sufjan stevens’ touring band and had worked with the polyphonic spree, but had offered up no solo work of her own.  that, in part, is why marry me continues to be such a monumental album, one that clearly shaped clark’s career as opposed to functioning as a mere stepping-stone.

this distinction is critical: the trajectory of st. vincent has always been an evolution, never a reinvention, and marry me contains the foundation of that vision.  wisps of the grandeur that would eventually control efforts like 2011’s strange mercy and this year’s self-titled album exist, but they’re muted, almost as if clark was suppressing innate artistic urges in order to develop them more cohesively before embarking on a full exploration.  nonetheless, by the time she delivers “your lips are red,” the album’s third track, early signifiers are there: jagged melodies, stuttering guitars, surreal imagery.

despite the presence of those key elements, the dominating component of marry me is decidedly acoustic.  the jagged melodies found in “your lips are red” are delivered primarily by a piano, not a guitar or synthesizer, and string flourishes add an element of the baroque that was so in vogue amongst clark’s new york contemporaries in the mid-2000s.  witness this combination again on the album’s title track, a plaintive ballad propelled by a soft piano progression and enhanced by a string ensemble.  this is also one of the first tastes of clark’s quick, understated wit delivered through song.  the song’s (and album’s) title is lifted from a running gag found in the initial run of arrested development, effectively dispelling any submissive or patriarchal undertones that may initially be conveyed, and lines like “we’ll do what mary and joseph did / without the kid” continue to subvert expectations and suggest that if mutual affection is going to be legally consummated, it will be on clark’s terms.

marry me is also unique within st. vincent’s discography in that it’s the only album to prominently feature clark’s talent on an acoustic guitar.  many of those skills evidently translated to her electric explorations, but they somehow seem even more impressive when stripped of their bombastic tendencies.  “paris is burning” is initially structured around relatively intricate acoustic finger-picking before diverging down the path of a bizarre waltz foreshadowed by clark’s apocalyptic lyrics.  but even as the meter shifts and a robust hammond organ starts jockeying for attention with an angular electric riff, the song still feels critically informed by the initial acoustic work, as if the eventual cacophony wouldn’t have been as meaningful – or even possible – without that ominous contrast.

the album’s key triptych is delivered late, and rightfully so.  listeners are required to peel back the outer layers of annie clark’s musical onion before they receive the privilege of experiencing the true potential of her artistic ingenuity.  “landmines” is a five-minute slow-burner that compounds clark’s affinity for meter changes and gradually shifting instrumentation (the harp sweeps contrasting martial snare flams almost make the song), but she also recycles hints of subject matter from “paris is burning” into the morose metaphor “landmines” is centered around.  “we put a pearl in the ground” pulls its title from an early lyric in “landmines,” and the use of “we” instead of “i” in the title is crucial, as it implies a sense of unity and resolution.  it’s the only track on marry me that clark doesn’t appear on (long-time david bowie collaborator mike garson provides the piano interlude), but its ornamented melody is derived from clark’s vocal contour on “landmines,” and the placid piano timbre further suggests a peaceful outcome.

“human racing” is the consonant result of the path taken by “landmines” and “we put a pearl in the ground.”  the album’s penultimate track is also the clearest foreshadowing of the subsequent course st. vincent’s career would take.  marry me largely favors chordal structure over riffs, but “human racing” blurs the line.  clark’s guitar work is so fascinatingly intricate that, while she mostly remains within the harmonic confines of the song’s progression, the ornamentations and passing tones almost push the vocals out of the spotlight to make the instrumentation the memorable component of the piece.  the ascending interludes provided by a small ensemble of woodwinds and brasswinds are also indicative of later st. vincent tropes: add a bit more low-end and a more intense bridge, and “human racing” wouldn’t sound out of place on actor or clark’s 2012 collaboration with david byrne.

clark’s biblical references are sparse but evident, perhaps a witty concession to her adopted stage name, but her lyrics especially thrive on metaphor and the simplest of statements that are incredibly profound.  an example of the latter is contained in the chorus of “the apocalypse song,” as she examines the basic principles of physics before declaring “it’s time / you’re light / i guess you are afraid of what everyone is made of.” and just like that, a seemingly simple fear becomes an all-consuming one.  clark’s use of metaphor and surreal imagery becomes more prominent on subsequent efforts, but its origins are firmly grounded in marry me; religious imagery and wordplay are at their finest on “jesus saves, i spend,” and as stated before, “landmines” would carry no weight if not for its desolate, war-torn descriptions and comparison of relationship struggles to minefields.

marry me feels timeless, not so much indicative of a particular point in the history of pop music as it is a crucial one in annie clark’s musical presentation.  as she continues to add to her discography and accolades, it’s hard to not see this inaugural album becoming an even more critical reference point.

bedhead – 1992-1998

bedhead numero group
out november 11th via numero group

trying to codify the trajectory of indie rock is a harrowing yet foolish task; first and foremost, there isn’t a single path to trace, and “indie rock” as a genre now feels hopelessly redundant.  the songs that now grace the blogosphere on a daily basis are somewhat indebted to forebears that broke through courtesy of car commercials and the o.c., but other strains like hip-hop and post-dub sneak in here and there, making it impossible to pin down a direct lineage.  an over-saturated contemporary climate benefits from a rather even-handed representation of nearly every style made accessible to an audience, yet this very fact deprives our generation of a defining sound, one that can be succinctly pinpointed years down the road.

an egalitarian musical climate may sound like a utopia, but it threatens to become stagnant at any given moment.  the all-encompassing grunge movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s was as much a whirlwind as it was incredibly suffocating; the unfortunate post-grunge era was a residual effect of its sudden implosion, but the movement’s huge gravitational pull led to inventive and important counters by young bands like modest mouse, low, and codeine, artists who were (initially) the outlier’s outliers.  another such antithetical band was bedhead, a texas quintet led by two brothers that incorporated many salient features of 1980s alternative rock at slightly lower volumes and tempos.  their recording career lasted just six years yet yielded three albums, a pair of eps, and a handful of singles, all of which are being reissued as 1992-1998, a retrospective four-album collection released by numero group.

 

dynamic contrast is one of music’s basic principles, and one that was certainly no stranger to the pop music of bedhead’s era.  bands like weezer and nirvana capitalized big time on the soft-loud verse-chorus one-two punch, while j mascis’ mumbling served as a simultaneous contrast to the deafening wall of sound created by dinosaur jr.  shoegaze acts followed similar practices, but nearly all lacked the patience to let that soft dynamic fester.  bedhead had that luxury.  spearheaded by matt and bubba kadane, the dallas-based quintet thrived on an almost orchestral approach to songwriting – the band experimented with stringed instruments like violin and viola before deciding to incorporate a third guitarist – and preferred to let every single melodic idea come to fruition before letting loose.

while bedhead certainly polarized grunge on a national level, their soft murmers were even more of a stark contrast to the hardcore bands that dominated the texas music scene in the early 1990s.  often sharing the same bill with these bands in their formidable days, bedhead occasionally caught some flack from hostile and unsuspecting crowds, though it wasn’t for lack of emotion.  from their earliest 7″ recordings, the brothers kadane expressed thoughts and feelings that quite clearly could only barely be kept in check, sometimes boiling over a la the coda of “bedside table.”  stellar songwriting and relentless touring led to a record deal with trance syndicate, a label that would become home to bedhead for the duration of their existence.

1994 saw the release of bedhead’s first album, whatfunlifewas.  the hesitant guitar arpeggios in the opening bars of “liferaft” briefly steer the band down the path that would eventually label them as slowcore pioneers, but those deconstructed chords prove to be a temporary misdirection.  the first quarter of whatfunlifewas is raw and incredibly prone to explosions of sound, and “haywire” is just altogether raucous, the perfect snapshot of a seminal band in development.  the album begins to burn slowly and comfortably near its halfway point, but the lyrical content – intense and introspective reflections on religion and god – remains largely consistent and becomes even more poignant once the band reaches that softer, more static volume.  yet, there’s a certain depth to whatfunlifewas that’s exceedingly rare for debut efforts; the quintet was confident enough in their ability to completely dictate a mood that they felt comfortable to briefly meander in a proto-decemberists direction on “to the ground” and to experiment with slightly cacophonous feedback towards the end of “powder.”

 

the hidden gem of 1992-1998 is the collection’s fourth disc, one that contains bedhead’s two eps along with a slew of singles and cover songs.  both 4songcdep19:10 and the dark ages were recorded and released in the two years that passed between whatfunlifewas and 1996’s beheaded, an album that subtly played on the band’s name while firmly cementing their status as champions of morose, downtempo ballads.  the dark ages showcases this best, capturing bedhead as they transitioned from raw and slightly raucous to refined and almost pensive.  the three-guitar structure of the band’s compositions loses any sense of internal competition as countermelodies become less contradictory and more complementary, although this could have easily been due to tench coxe’s sustained absences as he pursued post-graduate studies.  at any rate, the six-minute instrumental “inhume” hints at a renewed sense of patience and an even more thoughtful approach to song structure while “any life” again incorporates americana overtones, though in a much more subtle fashion than on their debut.

immediately apparent from the opening notes of beheaded is the expanding role of drummer trini martinez.  while the bulk of whatfunlifewas found martinez adding muted, jazz-influenced backbeats to bedhead’s dense thickets of guitar melodies, he’s noticeably absent from much of the album’s title track, an opening number that bravely eschews any sort of momentum in favor of static chord changes.  among the five members of bedhead, martinez’ role was the one that could fluctuate the most and the band made ample use of that fact throughout their sophomore effort.  if whatfunlifewas operated between four and seven on a ten-point scale of rhythmic complexity and musicality, then martinez widened the margins at least two notches in either direction on beheaded.  songs like “smoke” and “felo de se” feature busy drum parts in comparison to the majority of bedhead’s output, while the end of “roman candle” finds martinez employing remarkable dexterity within the confines of the band’s signature sound.

this new approach to space and revised roles of instruments was adopted by the rest of bedhead on their final release, 1998’s transaction de novo.  the nine steve albini-produced tracks are easily the most sparse in the band’s repertoire, and many are among their most somber.  while the band was able to create a singular mood out of saturating textures, albini crafted a tangential emotion based on a purely subtractive method; the chordal support of the third guitar largely disappears on transaction de novo, instead shifting the focus back towards intertwining, single-note guitar melodies that resolve over a number of measures rather than a few beats.  this increased emphasis on counterpoint is enhanced by busier bass playing from kris wheat, who plays in tandem with a guitar on parts of “exhume” and has a few peter hook-like moments on “more than ever.”

though albini succeeded in paring down bedhead’s sound to its absolute essentials, he also simultaneously steered the quintet towards some of their heaviest material.  the back half of “extramundane” sounds like it was written by a garage rock alter ego of bedhead, and “psychosomatica” is clearly the band’s last chance to completely let loose.  loud and soft were integral components of bedhead’s music, though they were usually addressed on separate tracks; this remained true to the end, and the unresolved conflict of the band’s two extremes remains one of the most fascinating aspects of their career.  but, in true bedhead fashion, the last notes to ever be tracked by them are comfortably arpeggiated chords, supported by lackadaisical common-time drumming.  perhaps that’s some sort of indicator, or perhaps the kadane brothers were just felt like burning slowly.

bedhead left an indelible mark on at least some aspect of indie rock’s trajectory by the time their six-year run came to an end in 1998.  death cab for cutie would release their seminal something about airplanes the following year, an album that retained bedhead’s loose, live approach towards recording, and it’s hard not to hear the influence of matt and bubba kadane on ben gibbard’s vocal delivery.  their three-guitar method would crop up soon in another popular austin-based band – explosions in the sky – and the quintet’s orchestral approach to songwriting undoubtedly weighed heavily on musical decisions by countless post-rock outfits.  along with other 1990s staples like codeine and low, bedhead was a shining example of how slow music didn’t necessarily have to be boring music.  whether they meant to or not, five guys from texas inspired an entire generation of musicians who dared to play below ninety beats per minute.  now their entire output is available in one tidy package; pick up 1992-1998 here.