Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Suzanne Vega 2: Solitude Standing

Folk-rockers are nothing if not socially conscious, so perhaps it wasn’t that surprising that 1987 saw not one but two songs about child abuse hit the airwaves. 10,000 Maniacs asked the musical question “What’s The Matter Here?”, while the more enduring song, for better or worse, was Suzanne Vega’s “Luka”. Set over a lilting E major sequence, the song alternated plaintive picking with a pair of rock guitar solos, and soon took hold of the nation’s collective conscience.
Some have pointed to its success as proof that she was a one-hit wonder, which would almost make sense had she disappeared from the music scene, which she hasn’t. Still, the song led to tons of copies of Solitude Standing flying off the shelves, and indirectly helped Shawn Colvin get a record deal, as she sang backing vocals on the track.
The album complements her debut, with similar production and songwriting, and offers more consistency in the way of her touring band appearing throughout. But just to show she’s original, the first thing we hear is “Tom’s Diner”, a view of the street sung a cappella. “Ironbound/Fancy Poultry” presents another urban portrait, the two sections working together to underscore the “selling” of body parts. “In The Eye” would appear to be written either from the point of view of a crime victim or jilted lover, but somehow her delivery isn’t convincing. (Maybe that was the point.) “Night Vision” is a slightly unsettled lullaby.
The title track a moderately adventurous attempt to personify solitude, was released as a single, but didn’t really take hold. “Calypso” is sung from the point of view of the nymph who imprisoned Odysseus, and according to the notes on the sleeve, was as old as “Gypsy”, a tender little love song from a different angle. “Language” comes in between, and probably works better as a poem than a song. The last big production is “Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser’s Song)”, the subtitle referencing the mystery surrounding a German youth from the early part of the 19th century, the length slowly building interest in his story. A wind-up instrumental version of “Tom’s Diner” closes the set.
Synthesizers being what they were in those days, Solitude Standing does suffer from its dated production, which is probably one reason why she’s been re-recording most of her catalog with more basic arrangements lately. The album is still her biggest hit, which is understandable.
An amusing footnote came a few years later when an indie producer started circulating a bootleg remix of the “Tom’s Diner” vocal enhanced by a trendy dance beat. Such a jarring juxtaposition actually worked, and A&M released it as a single. After becoming something of a viral phenomenon (before that term was common), a collection of similar remakes was issued with Suzanne’s consent. Tom’s Album featured both versions from Solitude Standing as well as the remix, another remix by the same people of a different Vega song, a few foreign-language attempts, and a couple of rap versions. The best track was a toss-up between a parody based on I Dream Of Jeannie and a live pseudonymous improv by R.E.M. with Billy Bragg.

Suzanne Vega Solitude Standing (1987)—3

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