Saturday, 13 October 2012

Suzanne Vega - Close-Up Volume 4, Songs Of Family (Album Review 2012)

Suzanne Vega has released the fourth (and final?) volume of her 'Close-up' series of reworked and re-performed songs from her own back catalogue. Close-up Volume 4, Songs of Family, as the name suggests, focuses on the people closest to Vega, and this one features previously unreleased songs - three no less, that conclude the album.

Songs are taken from Vega's previous albums with two notable exceptions. There are two songs from the much neglected Days Of Open Hand: Tired Of Sleeping and Pilgrimage, two from 99.9F degrees: Blood Sings and Bad Wisdom, two from Nine Objects Of Desire: Honeymoon Suite and World Before Columbus, two from Songs In Red And Gray: Soap And Water and Widow's Walk and (to complete the symmetry) two from Beauty & Crime: As You Are Now and Ludlow Street. No songs from her eponymous début and Solitude Standing feature (which is something of a surprise) and the opening song, Rosemary has only been released before on Vega's 1998 compilation Tried and True.

On paper, this looks like the weakest collection of songs on the four Close-up albums. That could be a good thing, giving more scope for the reworkings to shine. Only World Before Columbus, As You Are Now, Blood Sings and Soap And Water immediately stand out. But like many of Vega's albums (including these revisitations), quality is everywhere and it's easy to forget quite how good many of these songs are. Take Pilgrimage, for example. Here Vega has brought a dated and oddly-detatched song right up-to-date; gone is the big 80's production and echoing drums and the song can now escape, while retaining the original spirit. Many of the songs on Volume 4 have remained largely untouched. The difference this time is injected energy, when required, or increased poignancy to enhance the stories. After all, this is the most personal of these recordings. Soap And Water is as heartbreakingly beautiful as the original, the main difference being added guitar and the lack of strings, as is World Before Columbus. Both capture heartache and joy equally.

Big changes are few and far between. Tired Of Sleeping shows its age lyrically (now over twenty years old) but Vega makes a good attempt at undating, and uncomplicating, it - complete with a more effective big ending. That said, the original is wonderfully charming. As You Are Now is completely stripped bare of production and clutter, and Ludlow Street has all its rampant percussion removed, creating a more sedate version.

So what of the new songs? Brother Mine and The Silver Lady were written over thirty years ago but now sound completely relevant and modern. They are completely different, the former an upbeat country-pop celebration and the latter a more reflective take on the same subject. These are more obvious 'family' songs than most of the metaphor-driven work on the album. The final of the trilogy, Daddy Is White, is the newest song, and the most interesting. Revisiting the sound and approach of much of 99F degrees, this is new take on an old subject, and is a fitting finale to an album about family.

Looking at all four volumes of Close-Up, not many musicians could do what Suzanne Vega has done. This series of albums is both predictable and compelling; there are surprises and comfortable familiar arrangements aplenty but more often than not, it succeeds as a celebration and a reminder of just how good the songs of Suzanne Vega are. For past, present and future.
-- CS

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