Saturday, 27 November 2010

Close-Up Vol. 2, People & Places by Suzanne Vega Album Review (2010)

American musician Suzanne Vega continues her self-examining rerecording of her own songs with volume two of four Close-Up albums, subtitled People & Places. Like volume one, the songs are taken from four albums: two are chosen from the eponymous debut, four from Solitude Standing, four from 99.9F°, three from recent album Beauty & Crime, and one song not featured on any of her studio albums. These means nothing again from Vega's third record Days Of Open Hand. And Nine Objects of Desire and Songs In Red and Gray are not used at all, but given that Close-Up Vol. 1, Love Songs focuses on these albums, this is no big surprise. As with volume one this reinterpretation is not just an 'acoustic' album – the instrumentation is retained as needed and stripped down to let the words tell the stories.

The two songs most associated with Suzanne Vega feature on this album. Her biggest hit, Tom's Diner, was only so because of music producers DNA who used the original a cappella version set to Soul II Soul. Instead of suing, Vega bought the version and her record company released it. Here, it would have been easy for Vega to ignore this and attempt some mash-up of the original vocal and the horrible instrumental 'reprise' that closes Solitude Standing. Instead the People & Places take is closer to the DNA version, with barely audible backing on the verses and strings to accompany the wordless chorus. More than just a compromise, this is a definitive version. The subtle arrangement ensures the song remains as powerful as ever: the line '...when I'm feeling someone watching me, and so I raise my head...' still creates one of the most amazing spine-tingling images. The only odd move here is the change in musical accompaniment for one of the verses. The second of these songs is the brilliant Luka. Here this is a faultless version stripped of the huge '80s' guitar arrangement while retaining the core melody and message. And Vega injects more personality into key lines to stress the power of the song, most notably '...If you ask that's what I'll say. It's not your business anyway'. Incredible song writing and a flawless performance.

The two songs from Vega's debut highlight how far she has come. The Queen And The Soldier is wonderful poetry but vocally clumsy. Credit is due for not updating the lyrics and changing the soul of the original as it is still supreme storytelling. The second early song Neighborhood Girls is more on the money, the outdated guitar sound now replaced with a crisp acoustic one. Vega handles to torrent of lyrics that shape this story with ease, the vocals styled more like a echo of the production used for some of 99.9F°. Moving to that album, two more songs continue the high standard. Rock In This Pocket (Song of David) is an often forgotten gem, taking the Biblical tale of triumph through smart thinking in the face of adversity and weaving in menace and retribution. Again, the essence of the music and production is retained while given more breathing space for the vocals. Of the other three songs from the same album, In Liverpool also stands out. This is very close to the original simply because it has to be. Anything else would not work. The swinging waltz chorus is the best Vega has produced. The only difference is one that is now evident on this and the previous collection: the balance between music and vocals is equalised to great effect.

Another brilliant moment is the playful cabaret of Fat Man And Dancing Girl. Gone are the silly bird samples and clunky kitchen sink production in favour of keeping the glorious collection of sounds and textures. Way too short at just over two minutes. But not all the songs stand out. One of the earliest, Calypso, suffers from wayward vocals and a rambling arrangement. From Beauty & Crime, only Zephyr & I impresses as the punchy backing percussion and choral backing vocals are softened to release the song. Conversely New York Is A Woman suffers from the opposite effect and likewise Angel's Doorway takes away from the interesting original and offers nothing new in return. The oddball song here, Man Who Played God, co-written for the Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse album Dark Night Of The Soul, is just that. Vega never sounds comfortable vocally and it is out of place.

With Close-Up Vol. 2, People & Places the compositions centre around two albums: her most commercially successful release Solitude Standing and the wonderfully textured and adventurous 99.9F°. This adds a lot more room for expansion and even though Vega is never one to outdo herself, you get the impression on People & Places that this is a chance to rework as much as revisit. Arguably many of the songs here are better than the originals due to careful re-treatment, but there are also some stumbling blocks that make People & Places more inconsistent than Close-Up Vol. 1, Love Songs. That said, the great moments more than make up for the discretions. The Close-Up series is proving to be an absorbing experiment and an engaging listen.

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