It’s never been especially easy for singer-songwriters. It seems like every Jane and John Doe who can play a guitar thinks that means that they can write good songs. With the blogs and MySpace and how the two have completely revitalized how people discover music, it’s become even harder. Any marketing student or employee can tell you that a gimmick helps, but in the long run, if the music’s no good, people will eventually keep moving. On Sunday, a bunch of East Coasters made the stop in Brooklyn to see two singer-songwriters who are true talents.
Before Sunday, all I had heard of St. Vincent were three songs on her MySpace profile that I liked but hadn’t stunned me. After seeing her live, that all changed.
Live, Annie Clark aka St. Vincent bears a somewhat overwhelming vocal resemblance to Kate Bush, but in a more modern, less alienating way. While I love Kate Bush, I’ve always found her a bit disconnecting and occasionally found myself wishing that she had toned it down a bit. St. Vincent is the perfect blend of sweet, pop singer-songwriter bashfulness and Kate Bush style quirkiness. But even though I’ve dropped the name Kate Bush four times now, this isn’t to say that she’s a Kate Bush wannabe, it’s mostly all in her voice and how she uses it (and for whatever reason this comes through a lot more live than it does in the recordings).
Musically, she’s all over the map in an exciting but not frenetic way. Her style ranges from your typical sweet pop number with a few smart lyrics (“let’s do what mary and joseph did / without the kid”), to more angular pieces that bounce back and forth between hurried and calm guitar.
She knows how to play up her strengths — a birdcage with a hanging wedding cake topper was a nice contrast to “Marry Me” (the title track of her upcoming album, which drops on July 10th), and her wide, brown eyes were all it took for the men in the crowd to be smitten. But though she knows what she’s doing with her image, she also knows what she’s doing with her guitar, and that’s what really counts. Her performance of “These Days” is on par with Gregg Allman’s cover of the Jackson Browne tune, and that’s the point where I made the final step in crossing over from a listener to a fan.
St. Vincent on MySpace (listen to “Marry Me,” it’ll be stuck in your head for days)
On the subject of people who know how to play up their strengths, few in indie-rock songwriting know how to do so more than John Vanderslice. If the marketing genius he displayed in trying to stir up controversy around his song “Bill Gates Must Die” wasn’t enough, he’s cultivated a reputation as being “The Nicest Man in Indie Rock,” and deservedly so. Though I don’t personally know him, the few encounters I’ve had with him and his ever-changing band were incredibly pleasant, and those who do personally know him speak nothing but good things. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to something about him I can speak to — his music and live performances — I’ve rarely said anything but good things.
Mr. Vanderslice is tops in making a concert feel like more than a concert. There’s always plenty of conversation/interaction between him and the audience — at this particular show, he invited people to come around to the side of the stage (where the gear was kept), as well as to actually come up and sit on the stage behind him. His interaction with other musicians is always top-notch, as well, and at this performance, Matthew Cawes of Nada Surf and Peter Hughes came up at different times to accompany his vocals (Cawes on “White Plains” and Hughes on “Time Travel is Lonely”), as did St. Vincent. The only negative thing I can say about the man is that I wasn’t so crazy about his last record (and that’s not to say that I disliked it, I just didn’t love it as much as I loved everything before it). In the long run, even that didn’t matter, because he played several brand new things, several old things, and the material from Pixel Revolt appealed to me a lot more in the live setting.
At the end of the Vanderslice set, St. Vincent, John Vanderslice and Mr. Vanderslice’s drummer climbed into the audience for an ultra-acoustic version of “Nikki Oh Nikki” that probably left a few eyes teary and even more ears happy that they had made the trek to Brooklyn for these two singing-songwriting all-stars.
John Vanderslice: “Time Travel Is Lonely” (download)
John Vanderslice: “Nikki, Oh Nikki” (download)
images courtesy of flickr user elizabeth weinberg