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Review: A dynamic St. Vincent offers volume, nuance at the Wiltern

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She shuffled and jerked. She collapsed on the Wiltern stage like a marionette, got up and then quickly dropped again. During "St. Johnny," the artist Annie Clark, her stark white hair jutting up and out, slithered and posed on stage stairs in overwrought exhaustion.  

And through it all the versatile artist, who performs as St. Vincent, didn't miss a beat, whether ruling the upper ranges during vocal runs -- "people turn the TV on it looks just like a window," she offered on "Digital Witness" -- or barking out declarations and confessions, whether offering quick synchronized dance moves or pouring forth oft-dissonant, breathtaking guitar solos and distorted, metal-esque riffs.

Appearing Friday in support of her career-best fourth album, "St. Vincent," Clark was riveting, a natural on the stage whose songs are as lyrically intricate and accomplished as her delivery. Performing with a sparse three-piece band and featuring visual shadow-play on a big wall behind her, the artist offered vivid portraits, internal monologues and candlelit curios with fluid phrasing and perfect elocution.

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In doing so, she confirmed herself as one of the most exciting pop artists working today, a musician who leaps from the screen whether guesting on "Portlandia," toying with Stephen Colbert or collaborating with kindred spirit David Byrne.

Over the last seven years, the New York-based, Oklahoma-born artist has gathered a devoted tribe who consider her to be a kind of Michael Jordan of modern pop -- preternaturally born to offer three- and four-minute gems bursting with singalong melody, grand choruses and, best, a casual wit and intellect. She's a fresh Prince -- except way less uptight and egomaniacal.

At her most convincing on Friday, Clark grabbed you by the wrist and dragged you into her realm like a friend pulling you toward a Ferris wheel. Within the first moments, in fact, she'd already lyrically transported us to the desert where, as she stood naked and alone, she saw "snake holes dotted in the sand, like Seurat painted the Rio Grande." 

Clark's face was as expressive as a silent film star, with a wide-eyed drama and practiced gestures that conveyed nearly as much as the words she was singing or the melodies she was playing, no small feat.

On the private portrait "St. Johnny," she described an evening with said saint in which they "snorted that piece of the Berlin wall that you extorted/And we had such a laugh of it, prostrate on my carpet."

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The sold-out crowd, evenly divided among the genders, swooned and sang, so focused on Clark that they actually complied with the robotic voice that, at the opening of the show, firmly requested that fans resist smartphone snapshots and digital annoyances. As a result, the concert felt wonderfully impermanent, with a lightning-in-a-bottle energy.

That was most apparent on her most explosive songs. For "Bring Me Your Loves," she harnessed the spirit of second-line New Orleans percussion and teamed it with analog synth tones and quick bursts of guitar. On "Cheerleader," from "Strange Mercy," she described having "good times with bad guys" with gentle accompaniment, only to erupt with distortion for the jumbo chorus: "I don't want to be a cheerleader no more."

If there was a complaint, it had to do with heightened expectations. As an artist keenly aware of presentation, image and performance, Clark's staging was surprisingly minimal. Lighting focused on bursting strobes and shocking flashes. When she offered one of her many guitar solos, a bright light shot at her from below, projecting her shadow onto the wall behind her. It could have been better executed.

Too, her three-piece backing band, while accomplished and tight, was too small for the big gestures and dynamic layers found on "St. Vincent." I wanted double the players and more sonic expansion. I wanted horn bursts during "Digital Witness" and more percussive syncopation. In short, I wanted to be overwhelmed by an aesthetic maximalism equal to Clark's musical ambition. 

Thankfully, she's only 31. As she expands as an artist and more fans realize the breadth of her talent, no doubt Clark's presentation will become as refined as her way with a phrase and a melody.

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Twitter: @liledit

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