Monday, August 6, 2012

Suzanne Vega 1: Suzanne Vega

There was something of a Greenwich Village folk revival in the early ‘80s, which started to gain a little attention with the advent of hippie nostalgia. But before that kicked in, Suzanne Vega put out her self-titled debut on the then-respected A&M label.
Her voice isn’t striking so much as pleasant, a slightly breathy alto with an occasional streetwise cool. What brought her attention was her simple guitar picking and somewhat poetic lyrics, which abound on Suzanne Vega.
“Cracking” begins with a simple, pretty picked guitar line, soon backed by synths. The verses are mostly spoken in rhythm without much melody, until the very last verse, where it just begins to soar. “Freeze Tag” continues the edgy, wintry feeling, lifted just a bit by “Marlene On The Wall”. With its energetic backing, it was a moderate hit, a clever portrayal of various failed relationships as observed by a photograph. The vulnerability re-emerges on “Small Blue Thing”, riding the line between literal and figurative. “Straight Lines” sports jagged motifs to match the image of a woman cutting her own hair, and may or may not be a self-portrait.
“Undertow” begins gently, then soon becomes a rather disturbing picture of obsession. (Sarah McLachlan must’ve loved this one.) The standout track is “Some Journey”, from its opening stridently strummed to the accompaniment of Mark Isham’s keyboards and Darol Anger’s violin (both Windham Hill artists at the time). The arc of the song is expert, starting with imagining another time and place before being deposited firmly in the disappointing present. “The Queen And The Soldier” would appear to be the most “folk” song on the album, considering its structure and medieval subject matter. The dénouement isn’t very satisfying, but it’s still memorable. The image of a queen has a very different meaning in “Knight Moves”, where a relationship is viewed in the context of a chess match. And another overheard conversation drives “Neighborhood Girls”, very influenced by the New York City of Lou Reed, chasing a tangent to an extreme before being reeled back to the start. (She performed this once with the Grateful Dead, and the fit was perfect.)
We first discovered this album in the wake of her second, which was a much bigger hit. It happened as September finally decided to turn to fall, and the yellowing leaves and graying skies were an excellent backdrop to these sensitive, thoughtful songs. Some of the production (keyboards and slap bass mostly) doesn’t work, but for a first effort, it was exciting.

Suzanne Vega Suzanne Vega (1985)—4

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