TD Halifax Jazz Festival 2014: St. Vincent | The Heavy Blinkers at Festival Tent - Mon Jul 7 2014 at 9:00 pm
St. Vincent (New York City, NY)
Genre: chamber rock
St. Vincent is one powerful, stunning young woman named Annie Clark, and she has been moving at breakneck speed for the past two years, barely stopping to catch her breath. In 2011, she released her third album, Strange Mercy, called "one of the year's best" by the New York Times and "something to behold" by Pitchfork. The record cemented her status as one of her generation's most fearsome and inventive guitarists, earned her the covers of SPIN, Paper, and Under the Radar, performances everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fallon to Letterman and Conan, and a year-long sold-out tour of her biggest venues to date around the world. She appeared on the hit IFC series Portlandia and graced the pages of Vogue's coveted September issue. It was during this already monumentally busy time that she completed work with David Byrne on their collaborative album Love This Giant, another critical smash that was dubbed "marvelous" by the New Yorker and "magical" by NPR. With the release of her eponymous fourth album St.Vincent in early 2014, Clark has realized her most lyrically sophisticated and musically diverse collection to date, meshing distorted, aggressive electric guitars and bold vocal and synthesizer arrangements on top of a relentless rhythm section. "I wanted the groove to be paramount," Clark says of the album. "I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral." Clark's futuristic pop music is deceptively candy-coated. At its core it is complex, intrepid and maddening, yet Clark delivers it with such effortless sophistication that it remains totally irresistible.
Personnel: Annie Clark (guitar/voice), Daniel Mintseris (keyboards), Toko Yasuda (keyboards), Matt Johnson (drums)
The Heavy Blinkers (Halifax, NS)
Genre: orchestral pop/folk
What began in the late 90s as a solo project for Haligonian music icon Jason Michael MacIsaac blossomed into an internationally recognized orchestral pop group that slowly rescinded into silence; but that's hardly the whole story. MacIsaac, an incredibly convivial orchestral-pop junky with a penchant for perfectionism has been the group's sole constant, though its ranks have included such local luminaries as Ruth Minnikin, Jenn Grant and Andrew Watt. The Blinkers, in various incarnations, released albums and toured with relative regularity from its inception until its excellent 2004 album The Night And I Are Still So Young. Continuing the band's fancy for introspective pop numbers with happy sounds and sad sentiments, The Night and I reached new heights and cemented their reputation as one of the best pop bands in the country, gaining them a loyal following throughout North America. Following that came a period of near-inactivity that left the band’s avid fans in a desperate lurch. This beautiful surge and subsequent silence lead to SPIN voting the band as one of "The Greatest Bands You've Never Heard" in 2009. The bittersweet Blinkers' story began anew in the summer of 2013 with the long-awaited appearance of Health, an intricately detailed concept record with expansive arrangements and unrivalled song craft. This glorious return to form proved that, in the nine year interim, MacIsaac's abilities as a songwriter had only grown sharper, his ear for melody more keen and his aims even loftier. In its ninth life, the Heavy Blinkers now features an all-star ensemble including velvety vocalists Melanie Stone and Stewart Legere, woodwind prince David Christensen and, of course, the inimitable MacIsaac.
Personnel: Jason Michael MacIsaac (piano/guitar/banjo), Melanie Stone (voice), David Christensen (woodwinds/percussion), Ellen Gibling (harp), Adam Fine (bass), Warda Limaye (violin), Stewart Legere (voice), Michael Belyea (drums)
It starts with the creation myth: St. Vincent, naked and alone in the wilderness, startled as the ominous rattle of a snake breaks the silence of her Eden. She realizes she's not alone in the world and breaks into a run, headed towards the uncertainty of the future. It's a lovely and appropriate metaphor to open St. Vincent's self-titled fourth album, except that it literally happened.
"It's not a metaphor at all," St. Vincent, aka Annie Clark, says of the album's lead track, "Rattlesnake." While visiting a friend's west Texas ranch, she decided to strip away her clothes and fully enjoy the solitude that city life so rarely affords. "I went walking around this great expanse of land. There was no one around so I decided to take my clothes off and immerse myself in nature. I saw holes in the path, but did not put two-and-two together until I heard the rattle and caught a glimpse of the snake."
Clark's been moving at a breakneck speed for the past two years, barely stopping to catch her breath amidst a whirlwind of recording and touring. In 2011 she released her third album, Strange Mercy, called "one of the year's best" by the New York Times and "something to behold" by Pitchfork. The record cemented her status as one of her generation's most fearsome and inventive guitarists, earned her the covers of SPIN, Paper, and Under the Radar, performances everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Fallon to Letterman and Conan, and a year-long sold-out tour of her biggest venues to date around the world. She appeared on the hit IFC series Portlandia and graced the pages of Vogue's coveted September issue. It was during this already monumentally busy time that she completed work with David Byrne on their collaborative album Love This Giant, another critical smash that was dubbed "marvelous" by the New Yorker and "magical" by NPR.
"I finished the Strange Mercy tour in Japan and went directly into Love This Giant rehearsals and the subsequent North American tour," says Clark.
At the end of it all, Clark made it clear to everyone in her life, in no uncertain terms, that she needed two weeks to decompress and readjust to life off the road. Time without interruption, without thoughts of albums or tours or festivals or studios. "36 hours later I sent everyone an email saying, 'I'm ready to go again,'" Clark laughs. "I began writing music."
Those songs turned into her most lyrically sophisticated and musically diverse collection to date, meshing distorted, aggressive electric guitars and bold vocal and synthesizer arrangements on top of a relentless rhythm section.
"I wanted the groove to be paramount," Clark says of the album, which she arranged and demoed extensively in Austin before heading into the studio in Dallas to record. She enlisted Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss and frequent collaborator McKenzie Smith of Midlake to share drum duties, while she returned to producer John Congleton to take the sonic potential they'd only just begun to tap with Strange Mercy into dramatic new territory. "I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral."
The result is Clark's most gripping work to date. "Bring Me Your Loves" is a frenzied freakout, but even less frantic tracks like "Severed Crossed Fingers" still deliver her trademark blend of the beautiful and surreal. At the heart of all her music, though, lie larger questions about what it means to be human and the ways in which we seek to create meaning in our lives.
"Regret" catches her at a moment of immense vulnerability, while "I Prefer Your Love" may be the purest expression of affection she's ever written. "Digital Witness" tackles identity in the era of Instagram, with Clark singing, "If I can't show it / If you can't see me / What's the point of doing anything".
"We are inundated with technology that makes us perpetual spectators," says Clark. "It's not enough to just experience life, we have to document it and show it to other people in order to validate our existence." Clark is quick to admit that she, too, at times falls victim to the impulse, which is part of what fascinates her so much with the idea. "Lyrically, I'm always so interested in how complicated people are and the notion of true ambivalence," she says. "Literally, ambi-valence. Two ways at the same time."
Such is the music on St. Vincent: charming and alarming, gorgeous and morbid, comforting and uncanny. Four albums into one of music's most compelling careers, Annie Clark is as "ambi-valent" as ever, and she's not slowing down any time soon.
On a warm spring day in 2006, over twenty musicians gathered in a studio in the north end of Halifax. Their presence was requested to sing in a choir for the upcoming Heavy Blinkers record. It was a project that had developed an aura of mystery as of late.
The band had been playing less and less over the previous months. In addition to that, some of the founding members had begun putting their focus on other projects. Their magnificent last offering The Night and I Are Still So Young earned them international acclaim and a devoted fanbase. Still, basing a touring orchestral pop act out of an isolated Canadian coastal city wasn’t without its challenges.
As the choir assembled, they were given the lyrics to an upbeat and ambiguously themed track called “As Long As You Have Your Health.” With crisp voices riding atop a giddy piano line, they delivered a song that evoked the classic pop sound that The Heavy Blinkers had mastered with favorites such as “Try Telling That To My Baby” and “You Can Heal.” It was with the track’s cautiously optimistic lyrics and beaming delivery that the current chapter of The Heavy Blinkers drew to a close.
Seven years later, the band’s last remaining founding member, Jason Michael MacIsaac received a wood carved image of a sailor standing alone on the edge of a turbulent sea. The naval officer calmly salutes a ship in the distance as it sinks into the waves. The night glows around him. The image acts as the completed album’s cover. While it’s a tribute to MacIsaac’s father, who served in the military, there is also something else at play. The sailor salutes with his wrong hand. The snow that falls in the evening sky is alive with a surreal light.
It is the final piece in a project that has been one constant in almost a decade of change. Following endless sessions, long hours of meticulously arranging instrumental passages, and reworking lyrics, Health was finally done.
All of The Heavy Blinkers splintered in various directions following their various exits from the band. Looking for new motivation before he carried on, MacIsaac put new focus on his work with renowned Theatre troupe, Zuppa Theatre. He also began composing music for television and film, including scoring the Thom Fitzgerald film Cloudburst (which features Oscar Award winners Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker). This new format directly informed the way he approached the subsequent Heavy Blinkers material.
With that in mind, Health begins with an ending of sorts. The choir that was assembled so many years prior sings a passage that slowly submerges into a mysterious new world. The second half of the track acts as musical gateway into this dimension. Unfamiliar voices guide the way. The once glowing sunshine has dimmed into twilight.
Filled with songs of the war, death, and unrequited love, Health is a haunted epic. Written as a musical, the character’s stories are told by vocalists Stewart Legere, Melanie Stone, and Jenn Grant with help from guest contributors Sondre Lerche and The High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan. It uses works such as Frank Sinatra’s Watertown and Van Dyke Park’s (who once called the band “the real deal”) Song Cycle as touchstones, but still remains wholly unique.
Rolling Stone once claimed, “The Heavy Blinkers go beyond simple accomplishment, and into the realm of masterwork thanks to the production and pure genius arrangements.” Health holds true to these words. Each song delivers lush new arrangements that revel in all the benefits of studio indulgence. Culled from 30 completed songs, the depth of the project is massive, but the focus is unparalleled.
“Anna Karina, I Was Wrong” is a wartime tale that shimmers with harps and foreboding strings. Centred around the somewhat baleful refrain, “This is what you deserve, and I won’t stand in your way,” the song is an apology and a goodbye. It’s a towering work and stands as the thematic core of the record.
The song ends with an echo of “My Darling Clementine.” It is the first of many ghosts that haunt the album. These specters eventually take over in the closing, “Everything is Magic.” With echoing laughter and a woozy arrangement, the voices of 40 Heavy Blinkers fans (recorded all over the world) recite a passage that MacIsaac wrote seven years ago which would serve to inspire the project:
“In an attempt to spell her name, the illiterate moon gathered up all the stars into her arms, and laid them out over the night sky, forming letters as she went along. Unwittingly, she spelled the word noon instead of moon. The sun instantly filled the sky, and the moon disappeared.”
Through the voices and sway of the music, the choir once again resurfaces. This time its voices are distant, submerged. A memory of the beginning now ominously opens the door for a new chapter.
19+ ID Required / General Admission No Refunds or Exchanges Rain or Shine