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If Emerson College were a musician, it would be St. Vincent. She incorporates interpretive dance into her song performances and title of her first album is from an episode of Arrested Development. The enigmatic indie rock artist delivered a charmingly hipster and wildly energetic performance at the House of Blues this Thursday. I arrived at the venue having never heard any of St. Vincent’s music before. She was recommended to me by a friend who sold her to me as “folksy, but like, not.” Despite her visceral description, I really didn’t know what to expect. Based on her picture, she seemed like a Regina Spektor-type that uses her powerful singing voice to cover up lackluster instrumentation.
The opening act made me realize that this would not be the case. Holly Herndon was who St. Vincent chose to warm up the crowd, and I have no idea why. Ms. Herndon came to the stage with two instruments: a laptop and her voice. Her set consisted of obnoxiously bass-heavy electronica mixed with her wailing, and I don’t mean “wailing” as in she’s a bad singer. I mean that she literally just screamed into the microphone. No words, just screaming. It seemed like some of her synth effects were intentionally based on real world objects that sound terrible. Some highlights included the sounds of a locust swarm, an airplane engine, and a man having an unsatisfying orgasm. It’s entirely possible that her music extremely deep and meaningful and I’m simply too square to understand, but I just don’t know what she was hoping to achieve with her music. Occasionally she’d play a steady bassline that could be fun to dance to, but then it would be overtaken by African percussion and a melody that sounds like wind chimes breaking in 8-bit sound quality.
Despite being subjected to Holly Herndon, I was optimistic when her set ended for two reasons. 1: I didn’t have to listen to her anymore and 2. This probably means that St. Vincent is more than just another folk singer. There’s no way she’d have had that opener if she planned on crooning about heartbreak with an acoustic guitar. My anticipation continued to build as roadies practically rebuilt the set from scratch in order to set up her lights. The laptop was carried away and replaced by a microphone stand. The lights dimmed and St. Vincent took the stage.
She grabbed my attention without playing a single note. One of her synth players started laying down a beat and she began to dance erratically. It was like a combination of The Robot and Shuffling. After a few minutes of this she grabbed the mic and started singing. I liked her voice well enough, but the music still felt somewhat uninspired. This is how I learned the most important aspect of St Vincent’s music: It sneaks up on you. The beat dropped into a smooth bassline as a roadie brought St. Vincent an electric guitar.
If Jimi Hendrix and Tom Morello had a daughter, it would have been St. Vincent. By far the most engaging aspect of her music, Vincent injects numerous guitar solos into her songs and they are glorious. She blends faster “shredding” melodies with a variety of pedal effects to create an acid rock sound with a ton of energy. Moreover, none of the solos sounded alike. They ranged from spastically wild to funkadellically groovy, with heavy use of Morello-inspired string scratching.
While the lead guitar was the most musically interesting aspect of the concert, the most impressive aspect was the visual display. Vincent uses strobe lights and short, rapid movements to create optical illusions that make the music seem even more intense. At one point in the show Vincent crawled around a white structure while bathed in flashing pink lights. The lights made it seem as if Vincent was constricting the structure with her thin limbs coiling in mysterious sinister motions.
Vincent was backed by another guitarist, two synthesizers, and an acoustic drum kit with a few electronic drum pads. The blend of organic rock melodies mixed remarkably well with the electronic beats to create a sort of music that tends to have a universal appeal. Add Vincent’s poetic lyrics that fans can spend hours dissecting and the result is a top-notch indie sound that’s almost impossible not to appreciate.