St. Vincent and the Black Keys retrofit guitar heroics for the laptop generation

City Paper

The guitar had a good run, dominating Western pop music for the second half of the 20th century, but in this century it has taken a back seat to keyboards—of both the synth/piano and laptop variety. But two of this year’s best rock ‘n’roll albums—St. Vincent’s self-titled  record and the Black Keys’ “Turn Blue”—prove there are still some things the guitar does better than anything else. The two acts, sensing their common crusade, are now sharing a tour that stops at the Royal Farms Arena on Thursday.

Annie Clark, the singer/guitarist who performs as St. Vincent, and Dan Auerbach, the singer/guitarist who teams with drummer Patrick Carney as the Black Keys, have responded to the challenge of loops, samples, and beats with similar strategies. Both players differentiate their music from the clean precision of electronica by emphasizing the noisiness and unpredictability of their guitars.

On a song such as St. Vincent’s ‘Every Tear Disappears’ or the Black Keys’ ‘In Time,’ the distortion and variability of each chord indicates that the riff is being created not by computer instructions but by a pick being dragged across the strings each time.

But this is not the fast-and-frantic guitar noise of punk, metal or grunge; this is the syncopated dance music of pre-hip-hop R&B and funk. By combining the sonic experimentation of indie-rock with the relaxed grooves of R&B, Clark and Auerbach have given the guitar a renewed vitality.

It’s an old story: Whenever a genre seems exhausted, it can always rejuvenate itself by venturing across the racial divide. The Black Keys have long been frank admirers of R&B; Danger Mouse is a producer with Auerbach and Carney on “Turn Blue.” Clark, who was looking for a new direction after her album-and-tour collaboration with David Byrne, found it push-and-pull soul music.

“I wanted to put more emphasis on the groove,” Clark told me last year, “just as there was more groove on ‘Strange Mercy’ than there was on ‘Actor.’ I want to take it a step further, so the songs are less sad and more aggressive. There will be more songs about death, but none about depression.”

Clark and I were eating brunch at Dallas’ Nazca Kitchen in August 2013. Clark, who now lives in lower Manhattan, was staying at her mom’s house while she was recording what would become “St. Vincent” at John Congleton’s Elmwood Recording Studio in Oak Cliff, a district of Dallas. When I spread my rental-car map on the restaurant table, Clark explained the geography.

Taking a ballpoint pen between her painted-white fingernails, the dyed-blonde singer with brown eyebrows drew a circle around Richardson, perched atop Dallas like a tilted cap. She had lived there, near the border of Garland, the inspiration for the FOX cartoon show “King of the Hill,” that satire/celebration of the world of barbecue grills and riding lawn mowers. 

After brunch, she drove to Elmwood to go over the rough mixes with Congleton. The 11 songs  that made it to the final record, were the tracks that shoved the guitar grooves to the fore. Clark’s chord changes are unusually adventurous: She once worked on a tour by the jazz duo Tuck & Patti, featuring her uncle Tuck Andress, and studied jazz at the Berklee School of Music. But on her new album those harmonies and her catchy vocal melodies are anchored by R&B phrasing. 

“She has a vocabulary on the guitar that most rock people don’t have,” Congleton said. “She was tempered in a jazz background, steeped in that, so that when she plays rock, you can hear that background. It’s like if you speak English your whole life, and you start speaking Spanish, you’re going to speak with an English accent. She has a huge harmonic vocabulary. She’s really into guitar players like Andy Gill from Gang of Four, who play the guitar almost like the drums. We’ve also talked about the early B-52s records, where the guitars have that weird surf-music intonation. She loves bastardizing the instrument.”

“I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years,” Clark added. “I got hip to the riot grrl stuff in high school, but I never identified with anyone because they were female. When I’d go to the music store and see all these pink guitars for girls with flowers, it seemed so condescending. My role model was always Jimi Hendrix.”

When she showcased her new album at South by Southwest in March, she took the outdoor stage with her blonde hair teased high above her small oval face, performing a robot dance in a red puffy dress atop the set’s white steps. But the opening song, ‘Rattlesnake,’ was merely smoking until she strapped on her guitar for a sawtooth solo. On ‘Birth in Reverse,’ Clark and her bassist did a little forward-and-back dance routine over the buzzing, biting riff, proving that dance music and guitar noise can happily coexist. These theatrical touches are one result of her carefully choreographed shows with Byrne.

“The recordings are just a blueprint for what the songs will finally become on stage,” she told me last year. “I think we listen with our eyes a lot of time. When you see people on stage moving in interesting ways, it helps you grasp the grand scale you’re going for in the songs. You can watch and your subconscious weaves a narrative from it, an arc you don’t often get from a rock show.”


St. Vincent and The Black Keys perform at the Royal Farms Arena Dec. 4.

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