Annie Clark, who records under the name of St. Vincent, loves to role play.
At Metro in front of a capacity crowd Wednesday, the singer brought a theatrical flair to her performance with little more than some strategically placed lights, her voice and guitar, and an armada of foot pedals.
Backed by a three-piece band that replicated the lush soundscapes on her three albums, Clark orchestrated a series of scenes from an imaginary movie. The lighting was rarely neutral, either dropping her into a web of shadows or bathing her in a harsh white glow that made her seem a little terrifying – Diamanda Galas refashioned as a pixie.
The singer's precise diction and trilling voice, often climbing into an upper register that suggested a twisted Disney soundtrack, put an emphasis on the words -- and why not? She's a storyteller as much as a musician. Though the voice could be delicate, even girlish and fragile, pay closer attention to what she's singing and she comes off more like Snow White's sinister twin.
She teased out disturbing details amid the pretty sonic ice sculptures carved out by her keyboardists: "You're a boxer in the ring/With brass knuckles underneath"; "If I ever meet that dirty policeman who roughed you up/No, I don't know what"; "You're skin's so fair, it's not fair."
The latter line could be read as an admiring observation, a pang of jealousy, a veiled threat. Just about everything Clark does on stage has that queasy sense of ambiguity to it: sing-along choruses crashing into curtains of noise, lop-sided beats bouncing underneath stately keyboards.
That goes double for her guitar playing. She's a different kind of shredder, almost self-effacing in her virtuosity, preferring to make her guitar sound like anything but a guitar. At times she was hampered by a poor mix that muted her instrument. But when audible, it became a fearsome sound-effects machine, saturated with distortion or reverb, groaning or buckling beneath the weight of Clark's fingers. Not that it was all about effects; there were the lacerating solos in "Northern Lights," so full of wonderment even as they hinted at doom; the syncopated be-bopping fills in "Neutered Fruit"; the agile, spider-walking fingers on the fret board during "Year of the Tiger."
The songs never overstayed their welcome, sometimes to a fault. Each time Clark threatened to cut loose -- the curse followed by a savage guitar outburst in "Actor out of Work," the foreboding psychodrama of "Your Lips are Red" – she cut the moment short. She never approached the savagery of her cover of Big Black's "Kerosene," now a YouTube must-see after she performed it in New York last May.
She came closest to that uninhibited intensity on a cover of the Pop Group's 1979 single "She is Beyond Good and Evil." She pounced on the strings, let them recover, then dove in again. "My love was born on a ray of sound," she sang, allowing herself to get real, real gone for a change.
St. Vincent set list Wednesday at Metro:
4 Save Me From What I Want
5 Chloe in the Afternoon
6 Actor Out of Work
8 Just the Same But Brand New
9 Champagne Year
10 Neutered Fruit
11 Strange Mercy
12 She is Beyond Good and Evil (The Pop Group cover)
13 Northern Lights
14 Year of the Tiger
16 The Party