This article was originally published in 2011 and has been updated.
While St. Vincent, a.k.a. Annie Clark, has earned a lot of well-deserved acclaim as a songwriter and guitarist, she’s also a brilliant reinterpreter of other artists’ songs. From Big Black and INXS to Tom Waits and Dolly Parton, Clark has put her own distinct brand on everything from classic tracks to beloved obscurities since she burst onto the indie rock scene five years ago.
In celebration of her birthday on September 28th, we’re dusting off our list of several of Clark’s best cover songs from over the years. Check them out below.
The Beatles – “Dig a Pony”
What: The Beatles’ “Dig a Pony,” from 1970’s Let It Be
When: Regularly while touring behind Marry Me and Actor. This version is from her performance at All Points West in Jersey City, New Jersey, on August 1st, 2009.
As far as St. Vincent cover songs go, this is where it all begins. Clark’s version of one of the best tracks from The Beatles’ final album was a staple of her setlist as early as 2007, and she’s offered up several different variations of her own rendition over the years. In most, Clark takes advantage of her own guitar chops and rockabilly-s up the main riff, muting her chords while singing John Lennon’s mostly nonsensical lyrics. She utilizes the breaks between verses to issue some real noise from her guitar, which makes the sudden transitions to her soft voice that much sweeter.
Big Black – “Bad Penny” and “Kerosene”
What: Big Black’s “Bad Penny” and “Kerosene,” from 1987’s Songs About Fucking and 1986’s Atomizer
When: At the Our Band Could Be Your Life 10th Anniversary Show at New York’s Bowery Ballroom on May 22nd, 2011
On a night that included Ted Leo performing as Minor Threat, Dan Deacon as the Butthole Surfers, and Tune-Yards as Sonic Youth, author Michael Azzerrad’s greatest display of curatorial prowess was in selecting the doe-faced Annie Clark to play the harsh, intentionally ugly noise rock of Steve Albini’s Big Black. Clark doesn’t back down in the least, taking the songs as an opportunity to spit, scream, and downright shred her guitar in tribute to Big Black’s buzz saw assault. When the lyrics to “Bad Penny” come from Clark’s lips, they seem every bit as threatening as Albini intended them to be. This one’s stunning.
Nico – “These Days”
What: Nico’s “These Days,” from 1967’s Chelsea Girl
Where: On tour as early as 2007. This version is live in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 11th, 2010.
Like “Dig a Pony,” Clark’s cover of the Jackson Browne-penned song “These Days” has long been part of her live repertoire and was even included as a bonus track on the Japanese release of Marry Me. The St. Vincent version is a pretty, acoustic rendition featuring excellent fingerpicking work that falls somewhere between Nico’s softly sung version and Gregg Allman’s more countrified approach.
Tom Waits – “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore”
What: Tom Waits’ “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore,” from 1985’s Rain Dogs
When: During the Rain Dogs Revisited show in London, England, on July 13th, 2011.
Last July, an assortment of musicians gathered at London’s Barbican to cover Tom Waits’ classic 1985 album, Rain Dogs. Clark was on hand to give her take on Waits’ “Big Black Mariah” and “Tango Til They’re Sore.” For the former, Clark cranks up the already-pounding percussion present in Waits’ original and smothers the song in dissonant guitar noise and orchestral squeals, her voice alternating between shouted growls and hushed whispers. Clark hits all the right marks in the song but makes it distinctly her own; it’s a cover of which I feel Waits might even approve.
Clark’s cover of “Tango Til They’re Sore” sticks closer to the source material, dropping the jazzy piano in favor of stop-stutter guitar work and muted trumpet wails. The star of the song is Clark’s voice, which really gets a chance to belt out several of the lyrics here. With all of the praise that’s heaped upon her for her guitar playing, it’s sometimes possible to forget that she’s also a great singer.