Disclaimer: I have not listened enough to this album to let it grow on me. If it's indeed a grower, I apologize for this review. But I don't think it is.
With the first two singles off of Actor, Annie Clark had me fooled. Both "Actor Out of Work" and "The Strangers" led me to believe that Clark (better known as St. Vincent) would be releasing an indie-pop-rock gem; one with lush orchestration, fuzziness, restrained weirdness, and catchiness galore. I was wrong. And because of internet hype, my assumptions, and mostly Clark's eleven tracks, Actor turns out to be one of 2009's most disappointing albums.
Throughout my scribbled notes that cover all 11 of Actor's songs, there is one common word: BORING. And yes, it's always written in all caps, Kanye style. Clark, a certified master of orchestration due to her work with the Polyphonic Spree, never takes advantage of her skill, choosing instead to fill most of her songs with nothing but fluttering flutes and her repetitive voice. Bare melodies, bare instrumentals, and bare vocals fill the tracks, making them sound empty and barren. Actor's cover art, an in-your-face picture of Clark, defines the album all too well- it's all her, for better and for worse. And with the interesting, Snow White-esque voice that she has, this could be a good thing (Clark cites vintage Disney music as a major influence for the record). But after the album has ended, you'll be glad Snow White stopped singing for a minute: notably on Actor's closing tune, "The Sequel," which sounds itself like a mediocre Disney score layered with vocals, you realize you're tired of Clark's one-track voice.
Actor doesn't take long to kick off its unfortunate path. After the excellent opener, "The Strangers," reviewed in-depth here, track two goes downhill. Called "Save Me From What I Want," it kicks along with a boppy drum beat and Clark's sugary-sweet vocals- nothing too harmless. But the chorus kicks in. And after the hundredth time you hear "save me from what I want," over the empty background, you'll be pressing skip to save yourself from the song.
Weak, mediocre-at-best songs like "Save Me" are loaded on this album. "The Bed," "The Party," and "Laughing With A Mouth of Blood" all have their moments, but all drag into the same, tired formula of nice vocals from Clark over an unoriginal beat of some sort. St. Vincent's stuff is at it's best when it balances the creepy and the catchy, the weird and the whimsical. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen all too often. Only in moments does Clark show her brilliance: the trumpet-led disco beat and "H-E-L-P" chorus on "Marrow," the "ooo"-filled chorus of "The Party," the dynamic-but-subtle change midway through "Just The Same But Brand New." But these moments are far and few, scattered throughout the three-to-four minute songs in the most random of places. The songs as a whole do not match the sum of their parts.
Actor does have a string of three solid songs. "The Neighbors," track three, has a cool background that sounds ripped right out of MPP's underwater theme, and fully accentuates the Disney-inspired tone that Clark is going for. Trumpets lightly blare under Clark's voice (sounding particularly gorgeous on this particular track), orchestration kicks in, and the song takes full form, a beautiful, haunting ditty that works. "Actor Out of Work," the best song on the album, follows suit with less whimsy and more catchy. "Actor" contains some of the catchiest melodies of 2009, with fuzzed out trumpets and guitars popping in as they please. I've reviewed it before, but after repeated listens the song gets better and better; probably finding a spot on my year-end track list. Following "Actor" is "Black Rainbow," a solid flute-led orchestral work, a "Hitchcock score incarnated as a pop tune about keeping danger at bay until the final stretch, when ominous strings emerge from the fuzzy guitars to remove any pop sensibility (Consequence of Sound, in a perfect description)." But even these strings, so brilliant and haunting, come way too late and drag way too long.
Make no mistake- Annie Clark demonstrates her musical brilliance throughout this album. There are tons of layers and sounds here that critics will pore over and gush over. If, on future St. Vincent albums, Clark can cut down on the crummy stuff in between these moments, she'd be better off for it. Because for now, to the casual music fan- someone just looking for a great listen- Actor isn't going to do the trick. As my listening companion informed me, the record is probably best put to use for background music at a facial than blasted in your headphones.