In dramatic light, her silver, cotton-candy bouffant of hair looks like it has been styled by an expensive egg beater.
Strike a pose, St. Vincent. She’s a sexy robot, now a shadow boxer, then a runway model. All with the blank face of one of those model/musicians in a Robert Palmer video. Oh, here comes a roadie to place the strap over her shoulder and the guitar in her hands. She’s doing tiny skittery little dances like she’s being controlled by someone with a magnet underneath the stage.
Boy, she can play that guitar — scalpel-like stabs and then whacking away on the whammy bar, the blunt, brutal force married with her pretty but never pure voice.
That’s how St. Vincent, the darling of indie rock, opened her 1¾-hour concert Thursday at the nearly full State Theatre in Minneapolis.
With every album and its attendant tour, St. Vincent, 31, seems to unveil a new guise. On Thursday promoting her self-titled fourth album, she came across as the daughter of David Byrne and Madonna. Having toured with Byrne to promote their joint album in 2012, she clearly picked up some performance-art instincts from him. Moreover, she enlisted Willo Perron, the creative director of tours for Lady Gaga and Kanye West, to help design this show.
Minimalism was the motif, both with lighting (lots of strobes) and the staging (just a three-tiered platform in the middle). But the visual inspiration could well have been those Palmer videos, what, with St. Vincent’s blank face, mechanical moves, dorky unison dancing with a fellow female guitarist and, most significantly, emotional detachment.
Though she has a pretty voice with tones that, at varying times, recalled Madonna, Debbie Harry and Alanis Morissette, she usually sang with the automatonic enthusiasm of Lana Del Ray. Only a couple of times, most notably on the simple, heartfelt solo number “Strange Mercy,” did she seem to invest emotionally in her singing. Too often it felt as if her voice was merely just another brick in her musical architecture.
Even when St. Vincent spoke between songs, it seemed like artifice, scripted down to her mention of Prince and her droll observations tinged with both a bit of wit and a tad of insight. Every movement onstage seemed carefully choreographed from her wilting like a sad-sack marionette to her shimmying in strobe lights (which was kind of like fanning through a flip-card comic) to her rolling down the three-tiered platform as if she’d died of a broken heart, all splayed out like an upside down crucifix at the end. Was there a message or was it just artifice for art’s sake?
However, when St. Vincent played electric guitar, now that was pretty freaking awesome and artful at the same time. The Dallas-bred, Berklee-schooled, New York-based Annie Clark (that’s what her parents named her) has an impressive vocabulary whether she demonstrated it in a few words, a long sentence or a short paragraph. She can flat out play.
There were the Tom Morello-like squeals during “Every Tear Disappears,” the Jeff Beckian skronkian precision on “Surgeon” and the Byrne-like herky jerky funk on “Prince Johnny.” And, at times, the music she played with her backup trio was almost as fascinating as her guitar work. “Year of the Tiger” rumbled like Led Zeppelin with a Native American drum beat. “Bring Me Your Loves” came across like warped heavy metal filtered through a Japanese synthesizer. And “Krokodil” careened like unadulterated punk.
Maybe next time around, St. Vincent will go for less performance-art and more performing the music.