Monday, December 3, 2012

Suzanne Vega 6: Songs In Red And Gray

While it’s never nice to take pleasure in someone’s pain, this is a perfect example of a performer’s personal turmoil resulting in superior art. Songs In Red And Gray is her Blood On The Tracks—not that it’s even close to the excellence of that album—in that the songs seem to be directly related to her divorce from Mitchell Froom. To take the attitude of finding good in anything, once he took up with blowsy blonde Ally McBeal fixture Vonda Shepard, at least we could take solace that his muddled approach wouldn’t be ruining her albums anymore.
While the album is certainly folkier than the last couple, some of the production touches she picked up over the past decade are still in evidence. Much of that might be ascribed to producer Rupert Hine, best known in the ‘80s for his work with Tina Turner, The Fixx and Howard Jones. Thankfully, it doesn’t sound like any of them.
“Penitent” is a good starting point, suggesting displacement at a crossroads. The rhythm continues on “Widow’s Walk”, which expertly combines the traditional ballad stance of the widow on the shore with well-placed nautical metaphors. A more obvious touchstone is addressed in “(I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May”, wherein our heroine insists that any young suitor would be better off chasing somebody else (with most of her male fans likely willing to take a chance on her anyway). Such an affair is picked apart in with surprising sexual reference in the extremely catchy “It Makes Me Wonder”. Irritation turns to sadness for “Soap And Water”, a heartbreaking lullaby of sorts for her daughter (“Daddy's a dark riddle/Mama's a headful of bees/You are my little kite/Carried away in the wayward breeze”). What happened in “Song In Red And Gray” isn’t as clear, but the unsettlement is tangible.
The lesser half of the album is set up by “Last Year’s Troubles”; unfortunately the techno beats in the mix distract from the cleverness in the words. “Priscilla” is a story that means more to her than us, but at least the sonics don’t irritate. That can’t be said of “If I Were A Weapon” (besides being titularly (?) similar to “(If You Were) In My Movie”, a song that wasn’t that good in the first place). The mystery of the sea returns somewhat with “Harbor Song”, describing an enigmatic dream. “Machine Ballerina” sports two basic melodic themes, one of which sounds like a typical Froom keyboard, the other barely displaying the bitterness in the accusation. “Solitaire” is a little too literal, and again, the scratchy mix is a tired gimmick. The album closes with a cover of a song by a Village fixture who ran a songwriting circle; her delivery makes it seem like one of her own.
Songs In Red And Gray is definitely a return to form, albeit tinged with the mixed emotions that inevitably follow a divorce and custody arrangements. Overall there are enough high points to keep the handful of misses from derailing it.

Suzanne Vega Songs In Red And Gray (2001)—

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