We were living in a bubble back in 2007, even if it didn't feel like it at the time. My pricey new car, purchased irresponsibly after I graduated from college, came fitted with satellite radio and the promise of 24 hours of indie and underground programming every day. What I didn't realize is that the structure of these satellite stations was the same as the terrestrial ones–playlists of 30 to 40 songs cycled through on repeat by ex-MTV VJs.
St. Vincent's first record, Marry Me, came out that summer and, as chance would have it, she was one of the artists in their regular rotation. It seemed like I'd hear her lead single, "Now, Now" every time I went for a drive. I'd turn the volume down near the end, both because of the screeching guitar solo near the close of the song that might offend a sensitive passenger and because there was a pretty good chance the on-air DJ was about to say something vaguely patronizing and amorous towards lead singer Annie Clark.
This is kind of how Clark's career has gone. Journalists ask her the same few questions about her origin and compare her to the same handful of female contemporaries. Her angry lyrics and slashing guitar are labeled as precocious. This was almost understandable in 2007, when the world hadn't yet gotten their fill of Feist and every female artists with a hint of sugar in their voice was lumped into the same category, but after four years of making decidedly un-marketable music, we can now say that Clark is more the girl with discordant feedback solos than the girl with the iPod ad.
Strange Mercy, Clark's third album, is the closest she's gotten to a radio-friendly recording. So it was fitting that the record's de facto release party was hosted by KCRW, that mecca of Los Angeles public radio, at the Berkley Street studio in Santa Monica on September 12.
I've been to one of the station's private sessions before and found it to be a bit stuffy. The shows are taped for broadcast on the KCRW's flagship program, Morning Becomes Eclectic, and consist of two short sets broken up by an interview by host Jason Bentley. Before the show starts, concertgoers are warned to be quiet. And so they behave--perhaps too much so. Monday night's crowd didn't cheer too loudly or dance or shout or create images on their cameras. They didn't even stand that close to one another.
My worry was that Clark would turn in a similarly polite performance. But, no. She changed the lyrics for the title track of her new album, adding an expletive. I felt sorry for the editor who had to bleep it out. She played a chest cramp-inducing distortion solo to end her new single, Surgeon, harsh enough to make a casual listener reach for the dial.
"I don't want to be nobody's cheerleader no more," Clark sang on her opening song, though, unwittingly, she was. I was handed a press release upon my entrance to the studio for the station's new free Music Mine app, which allows users to thumb through DJ sets from KCRW's DJ tastemakers and find new music. It allows the user to dig further than just the artist's lead single and escape the repetition of terrestrial and satellite playlists.
Maybe St. Vincent wasn't made for radio after all.
Photograph by Jeremiah Garcia