he female indie singer-songwriter, long a beloved population in the world of independent music, has gone cute. In the last couple years, quaintster goddesses from Arcade Fire satellite Sara Neufeld (of Belle Orchestre) and Sufjan Stevens collaborator My Brightest Diamond to Sub Pop chanteuse Rosie Thomas has popped up amongst the charmingly dressed (and also ridiculously talented) female multi-instrumentalists. Check the wry indie pose fronted by Thomas on If Songs Could Be Held: eyes drifting to the side, vintage frock on sartorial display, a background pattern lifted from an Anthropologie throw-pillow—all reflecting the record and movement’s smirking, anachronistic folk-pop.
Now, forget everything you know about the quaintster goddess.
As a collaborator with both Sufjan and psych-collective the Polyphonic Spree, Annie Clark seems just the sort of Austin polka-dot princess to capture the hearts of the fashionable; trouble is, neither she nor her music fetes the stylish baroque-folk pastorals of her peers. Occupying a space somewhere between mid-period Kate Bush and a less-affected Tori Amos, Clark balances a radiant musical confidence with a prickly sense of humor. Her debut album, Marry Me, brims with a sort of Lilith Fair wariness and brings in sincere anachronisms ranging from carnival shanties to hazy piano-folk, from smoky lounge jazz to prog. On the record’s cover, she looks the camera square in the eye.
Central to Clark’s story is the ability to face the possibility of embarrassment. Although a few of her lyrics can be head-scratching, she declares early on a fondness for clever wordplay. On the opener “Now, Now,” she puns her own name into the line “I’m not any, Annie, Annie … anything.” She implores her addressee to marry her in the title track. And she heaps sophomoric, longing compliments on her subjects—on “Your Lips Are Red,” she sings “Your skin’s so fair / It’s not fair.” Musically, she’s even willing to commit to the cliché of the Indian string arrangement on “Your Lips Are Red,” when one would think she knows she’s playing with post-psychedelic fire.
Whereas a lot of girls and guys insist on skewing young, Clark is, at a mere 24, making lifelong commitments and discreetly ignoring the quaintster aesthetic. “The Apocalypse Song,” beautifully executed and nonsensically hopeful, could (and should, really) be marketed to Amos devotees, or maybe featured at the cathartic end of a “Grey’s Anatomy” episode.
But what Marry Me may lack in innovation, it makes up for in attitude and execution. Annie Clark is a beautiful singer, a talented guitarist, and an inventive lyricist who sends nods in every direction, edgy or otherwise. In this mixed bag of vintage wares, it’s her gleaming set of pipes shining through, her tuneless guitar lines providing the payoffs. And while it’s difficult for us jaded rockcrit types to expect a musician of her pedigree to hang her quirky flourishes on a mainstream production, no one can deny that she deserves—no, commands—respect for it. Just don’t call her cute.