It would be the understatement of the year to say that the indie-rock world is not terribly welcoming of those musicians who’ve been saddled with the “virtuoso” tag. The term brings to mind images of tasteless schlubs like Yngwie Malmsteen and Joe Satriani, people whose very M.O. — to noodle endlessly for no reason other than to display a keen knowledge of scales and modes and other totally boring things — stands in direct opposition to everything indie-rock kids hold dear, specifically the wherewithal not to noodle endlessly. Exceptions are made from time to time, of course. Built To Spill’s Doug Martsch can noodle with the best of ‘em; Andrew Bird is apparently a virtuoso whistler or violinist or something, and now we’ve got Annie Clark, the as yet uncanonized singer-songwriter behind St. Vincent.
As with Bird, Clark’s main area of expertise (the guitar) often takes a backseat to her across-the-board competence with a number of instruments: bass, banjo, piano, synthesizer, etc. She uses her considerable skill and knowledge not to reinvent the role of any particular component but to assure that she’s in full control of the world she seeks to create, making certain the sounds she hears in her head are realized to her complete satisfaction. Known previously from her contributions to the Polyphonic Spree and as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ backing band, Clark’s world is, not unexpectedly, a quirky one. She dabbles in multiple styles throughout Marry Me: the playful, intricate arrangements of ‘Paris Is Burning’ and ‘Jesus Saves, I Spend’, the lush, soothing, almost Björk-like qualities of ‘Land Mines’ and ‘What Me Worry’, or the plodding, trance-inducing repetitiveness of ‘Now, Now’ and ‘The Apocalypse Song’.
There’s an overriding theatricality at play that could easily make the whole package just a bit too precious, as is sometimes the case with Sufjan and the Spree, but Clark offsets all that contrived cutesiness and over-the-top precociousness with an ear for melodies so subtle and refreshing that, were you to view any of her indulgences as sins, they’d be easily forgiven.