Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being (Album Review 2011)

Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being is the third in Suzanne Vega’s latest project, to rerecord, reinterpret and revisit her entire back catalogue in four new records, each with different themes. We have already been treated to Love Songs and People & Places so now Vega is tackling her most difficult subject: mental health. Looking through the track list, it is not the most recognisable collection of songs. From her original albums the songs from her eponymous début are Cracking, Straight Lines and Undertow, the title track from Solitude Standing, 50-50 Chance (originally Fifty-Fifty Chance) from the much-ignored Days Of Open Hand; from 99.9F Degrees there is Blood Makes Noise and When Heroes Go Down. My Favourite Plum and Tombstone come from Nine Objects Of Desire, from Songs In Red and Gray there are Penitent, Last Year’s Troubles and Solitaire, Pornographer’s Dream from Beauty & Crime and a new song titled Instant Of The Hour After from the play Carson McCullers Talks About Love which came out this year.

The most radical reworking of any song, not just on this volume but so far across the three albums, is the mighty Blood Makes Noise. This is such an incredible song on the 99.9F Degrees album as it sounds unlike anything Vega had done before (going hand-in-hand with the title track from the same album). But here, the industrial percussion, the fuzzy electronica and Vega’s thick multi-track vocals are all gone – replaced by a simple electric guitar, light drum backing and a more prominent single voice. The song is over thirty seconds longer due to a weird protracted chaotic guitar-driven outro. If there is an obvious criticism it is that all the tension and drama-inducing timing is gone. This is much more forward compared to the withdrawn nature of the original – and the lack of bass takes away much of the twisted energy.

When Heroes Go Down, from the same album, is again devoid of driving percussion and keyboards. Vega’s vocal is also under-produced, solitary and a subtly different arrangement. This is an example of a song that is performed in a completely different way while retaining all of its original tone and feel. Last Year’s Troubles is another example of this. And unlike Blood Makes Noise, Solitaire is largely untouched and what is added, enhances rather than distracts. This volume makes great use of small tweaks to lift ‘ordinary’ and less-known songs. This is a tactic that only fails on Pornographer’s Dream in which, originally, the drama in the second half comes from the music and not the vocal.

Sometimes even a great musician knows to never mess with perfection. This is why the beautiful Penitent is treated with care, removing the percussion and adding a soft string arrangement. One constant trait on Close-Up, Volume 3 is the stark naked vocals, like Vega is no longer hiding behind the songs. Her voice is always the most prominent instrument. Sometimes messing with a good song is exactly what is needed. Solitude Standing always felt like a great song, poorly arranged and badly mixed. But here it is a cold, hard-edged, dark highlight. Vega is superb here and this is a much improved version.

The three earliest songs, from Vegas solo album, have been given a much more modern arrangement, again with the vocals taking centre stage. Undertow has been stripped of the big 80’s stadium drums. Much of Vega’s young charm and wide-eyed passion is now replaced with ageing reflection and control. In contrast to this, Cracking is superb and an instant reminder of how good the début album is, Vega combining singing and narration with deft precision. Straight Lines is the weaker of the three songs when stripped back – the 1985 version is much more eclectic and ethereal.

New song Instant Of The Hour After is difficult to judge. It seems like it is glued to the end of the album as an added extra that does little to impress given all that has come before.

Close-Up, Volume 3: States of Being is another wonderful collection of songs, brought together not so much as therapeutic catharsis but as a musical celebration. It is not as dour and as dark as it could have been. Like previous volumes, some new arrangements are hard to accept. Blood Makes Noise is a brave attempt to do something completely different with a song that is near perfect – any subtle changes and the exercise is pointless. But mostly songs from the fringes have been subjected to modern production that is more obvious the earlier you go back through Vega’s work. Given the compelling nature and quality of these albums, Close-Up: Volume 4 is destined to complete the project and a great quartet.
-- CS

No comments: