Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Incomparable Suzanne Vega

Consummate Greenwich Village bohemian, astoundingly literate singer-songwriter, perennial bedsit heroine and iconic folk-pop luminary. Throughout her official two decade-plus residency in the industry, the ethereal-voiced Suzanne Vega have worn many artistic hats, even if she is still unjustly remembered as having just one hit single, 1987's deceptively sweet-toned "Luka". Bit of a shame, really.

While that harrowing first-person account of child abuse is her most significant chart entry to date, there is also an astoundingly rich body of work that sadly remains known to only a select circle of discerning listeners. Vega's repertoire is an absorbing, erudite and intriguing one that more than merits a periodic run-through, and also solid proof that she is not so much ahead of the pack, as running a different race altogether:

Vega's eponymous debut brings to mind a more accessible early-era Leonard Cohen, although, like that celebrated singer-poet, the majority of Vega's initial work is conveyed through wonderfully oblique metaphors. The coolly detached and slightly surreal "Marlene on the Wall" is the obvious highlight here, but other effervescent tracks like "Small Blue Thing", "Undertow" and the heartbreaking medieval morality tale "The Queen and the Soldier" have their fair share of engaging moments.

The album that delivered Vega her Top Ten hit sees her working with sturdier full-band arrangements, and more accessible, poppish (but no less terrific) production values. The observant slice-of-life narrative "Tom's Diner" was later remixed into a hip-hop club staple by DNA, while the idyllic, cordial "Gypsy" (which superbly displays her superlative finer-picking skills) is Vega's most melodic moment to date.

Vega stumble slightly with this third effort, mostly due to an unwieldy art-pop production template, but evocative, luminous songs like "Book of Dreams", "Tired of Sleeping" and "Institution Green" thankfully prove that she hasn't lost her inherent melodic sensibilities.

99.9Fº (1992)
A bold, adventurous step forward that has Vega drastically expanding her fundamental sound palette to include synth-pop, found-sound aesthetics, industrial rhythms and streamlined funk grooves. While numbers like "Blood Makes Noise", "Rock in This Pocket" and the hypnotic title track are the most startling in terms of fresh artistic patterns, it's the stately existential-angst anecdote "In Liverpool" that easily commands the most attention as a prime example of the new-look Vega.

Garnering newfound confidence from her previous album, Vega consolidates the sonic adventurism of "99.9Fº" for a quietly certain, subtly textured work that encompasses a variety of exotic genres like bossa nova, lounge-pop, and even classical minimalism. "No Cheap Thrill" has a distinct Cuban-pop vibe, "Stockings" flirts with pseudo-Arabic cadences, and the utterly compelling, silky-smooth "Caramel" is Vega's most frankly carnal instance ever.

Recovering from a difficult divorce and two albums of leftfield sonic experimentalism, Vega issued this subdued, tasteful but still effective record that is, in some ways, a more world-weary update of her 1985 debut. The slyly acerbic "Last Year's Troubles", the knowingly subversive "I'll Never Be Your Maggie May" (a sort of reverse "Mrs. Robinson") and the hauntingly confessional "Penitent" rank amongst the most accomplished tunes Vega has ever written.


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