Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Suzanne Vega 7: Beauty & Crime

The Blue Note label, once a venerable home for the best in modern jazz, found themselves well in the black with the surprise success of one Norah Jones, who played piano but wasn’t exactly jazz. Willing to throw the rule book out the window in the 21st century, they signed Suzanne Vega as a free agent, and released her first album in six years. Beauty & Crime finds her in familiar territory, still balancing introspective writing with up-to-date recording techniques.
“Zephyr & I” is the first indication that this wasn’t your grandpa’s Blue Note, and particularly not with a riff borrowed directly from Judas Priest’s “Living After Midnight”. It’s quirky and cute, but immediately surpassed by “Ludlow Street”, a haunting tribute to her departed brother, with a melody that tugs at the heart. “New York Is A Woman” manages to overcome the limitations of that metaphor, though we could do without the Klezmer arrangement that keeps popping up. Similarly, “Pornographer’s Dream” states that figure of speech right away, with a near-lounge delivery that improves by the chorus. “Frank & Ava” is perhaps too literal a comparison for a couple that finds it’s “not enough to be in love”, unless she really is imagining the celebrities of the title, while “Edith Wharton’s Figurines” is more obscure.
A lifelong New Yorker, it’s easy to read sadness into songs like “Bound” (“the way of the world
has taken its toll/ravaged my body
and bitten my soul”), except that in this case, it’s about reconnecting with the man who would become her husband (and remains so as of this writing; good for her and better for him). But it’s followed by “Unbound”, a less successful techno-groove. “As You Are Now” is a tender love song, with sympathetic strings, leading nicely into the final two songs. Both deal with the aftermath of 9/11: “Angel’s Doorway” alludes to the eternal cleanup, while “Anniversary” reflects on the survival of the city as a whole. To her credit, the album ends on an upbeat tempo, rather than a somber one.
There are good songs on Beauty & Crime, but they’re still hidden behind production effects and bigger arrangements. It takes a few listens for those songs to emerge, which may well be one reason why the album, lauded as it was, didn’t sell. And that’s too bad, because we’d happily listen to her sing anything.

Suzanne Vega Beauty & Crime (2007)—3

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