Posts Tagged ‘Suzanne Vega’

Friday morning, I tapped play on Suzanne Vega’s An Evening of New York Songs and Stories, which captures a New York-themed concert at the legendary Café Carlyle, a small club inside a ritzy residential hotel located on the Upper East Side, the Hotel Carlyle. Accompanied by guitarist Gerry Leonard, bassist Jeff Allen and keyboardist Jamie Edwards, she leads an aural tour of the Big Apple that provides insights into lives large and small, from icons Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner to a little boy named Luka.

Recorded on March 14, 2019, the 16-song set is essentially a collection of poetic and provocative spacetime soliloquies with melodies that are equally evocative and strong. The songs are imbued with a sense of place, in other words, as well as of the characters who populate it. “New York Is My Destination,” which she wrote for her one-woman play based on the life of writer Carson McCullers (1917-1967), is a great example:

The show mixes her best-known numbers with lesser-known album tracks, and features a tribute to an artist who changed her life when, at age 19, she saw him in concert – her first live show, no less – at Columbia University, Lou Reed. In the introduction, she explains that he “really turned things around for me in terms of songwriting and songs and rock ’n’ roll. I mean, that show really showed me what rock ’n’ roll was.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, she expanded on that intro: “[E]ncountering his music changed my way of writing songs. Suddenly I knew I had complete freedom as a songwriter and nothing was forbidden.” I hear another influence beyond subject matter: the specificity of her lyrics. Like Reed, she delivers deft portraits and scenes by honing in on minute details that speak volumes, and often does so with a journalist’s reserve. “Tom’s Diner,” delivered here in an arrangement reminiscent of the remixed DNA rendition, is a case in point.

“Anniversary,” which she wrote a year after 9/11, is another example; her restraint feeds the song’s strength. As it happened, it began to play just about the time I left home on 9/11 itself, which is when I learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. “Thick with ghosts, the wind whips round in circuitries/Carrying words as strangers exchange pleasantries/Do they intrude upon your private reveries?” left me slack-jawed. Life may move on, but the souls of the departed are with us, still.

(The above performance, by the way, isn’t from this album, but from last week; she uploaded it to YouTube on Friday – the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.) 

In any event, An Evening of New York Songs and Stories is a strong career summary of an oft-overlooked trailblazer; Vega, as I’ve noted before, was instrumental in the resurgence of folk-flavored music in the 1980s, a time when it seemed to have lost an audience, and then helped forge a new path in the ’90s with an electronica-folk hybrid. If you’re unfamiliar with her music, the album is an excellent entry point; if, on the other hand, you’re well versed on all things Suzanne, you’ll want to listen to it a few dozen times, if not more. It’s a sterling set.    

Earlier this week I found myself glued to an episode of CNN’s The Eighties. For those unaware of the historical documentary series about the 1980s, each installment surveys one topic. The first episode, for example, is titled Raised on Television and navigates the decade’s TV landscape; the second episode, The Reagan Revolution, recalls Ronald Reagan’s presidency. The episode I caught, titled Video Killed the Radio Star (after the Buggles song), dove deep into the era’s music.

The hour-long survey, which is probably closer to 40 minutes once the commercials are stripped out, nailed most of the decade’s most important events and artists. MTV. Duran Duran. The Go-Go’s. Thriller. Born in the USA. Madonna. Purple Rain. Live Aid. The Bangles. College rock (though I don’t think they used that term). Hip-hop. U2. Heavy metal. The PMRC. But a few important developments and artists were missed.

The resurgence of folk-flavored music in the latter part of the decade was one.

In retrospect, the Fast Folk anthology/magazine series set the stage and gave a platform to many up-and-coming singer-songwriters, even if most music fans never heard of it. (I did due to spinning folk records on Penn State’s student-run radio station at the time, WPSU.) Of the new artists it featured, perhaps the most important was Suzanne Vega, whose self-titled 1985 solo debut was and remains a landmark album. Although it sold modestly, it demonstrated that there was a market for literate lyrics coupled to stirring melodies.

One highlight: “Marlene on the Wall.” (To quote my wife just now, “I love this song.”)

Vega’s 1987 sophomore set, Solitude Standing, equaled the debut in artistic quality and did even better sales-wise, with the single “Luka” surprisingly making it to No. 3 on the pop charts. A few months later, the folk-rock sounds of 10,000 Maniacs bubbled to the fore: “Peace Train,” “Like the Weather” and “What’s the Matter Here?” from In My Tribe all found a home on MTV and college-rock radio. A year later, Tracy Chapman’s brilliant debut smashed even more barriers. In time, the Indigo Girls, Shawn Colvin and dozens of others followed. I’m leaving many artists out of the mix, obviously. The “folkabilly” stylings of Nanci Griffith predated Vega’s urban-centric debut, and are – artistically – as important. Later in the decade, James McMurtry gave a new face to Texas troubadours; and, somewhere in there, the Washington Squares put a delightful ‘80s spin on folk trios.

But Vega’s 1985 debut was the foot-in-the-door for all of the folk-flavored artists who followed. In a better world, it would be as celebrated as, say, Madonna’s Borderline or U2’s Boy, as – like those albums – it helped shift the established musical paradigm. Her lyrics are true poems set to song, forever eschewing generalities for specifics, and her melodies mesmerize.

Going back to my radio days: I often played two back-to-back tracks on this album for no other reason than they were among my favorites of the time: “Some Journey” and “The Queen and the Soldier.” Like many of her songs, they are simultaneously passionate and dispassionate. They’re true works of art. 

Another highlight hints at the rhythmic wonders Vega would more fully explore in 99.9F°: “Neighborhood Girls.”

Few works of art, in and of themselves, upend the established order of things. They are part and parcel of a larger scene, and it’s that totality that overthrows the status quo and ushers in a new age. So, rather than share a hyperbolic claim about its importance, I’ll say that Suzanne Vega’s solo debut helped re-focus the landscape away from synth-driven dirges and ponderous power ballads and to the power inherent in quiet tunes. It, along with Solitude Standing, In My Tribe and Tracy Chapman’s debut, paved the way for the generations of folk-flavored singer-songwriters since. 

If you’ve never heard it, seek it out. And if you have? Play it again.

On Tuesday, I picked up Nolan Gasser’s Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste. Gasser is the chief architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project (MGP), which shapes the Pandora experience, and the book – which delves into the whys and wherefores of musical taste and preference – is intriguing. 

The MGP, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the underlying data map that guides Pandora Radio’s algorithm, which is what creates the personalized listening experience. Instead of stitching together discordant songs and leaving the listener frayed from the stylistic jujitsu, the algorithm links songs based on matches within their individual data maps and user feedback. If you like A, odds are you’ll like B, C, D and E, with your thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs further weighting the music matches and nixing the mismatches. 

Or something like that.

Until this week, I never opened Pandora’s box. So, for research purposes, on Tuesday I launched a station by selecting Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”; Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” followed and, honestly, that bored me enough to shut down the experiment in its tracks. Yesterday morning, however, I tried again and launched another station built upon one choice: the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants.”

In total, I listened for about four hours and then, this morning, returned to it and listened for about three more. 

The total: 85 songs (give or take). On Thursday, I gave a thumbs-up to tracks I liked, thumbs-down to others, and let others play through without any reaction, as my hunch is that’s how many listen. On Friday, I only gave thumbs-ups, as flipping back and forth between browser windows gets old. Aside from a few interruptions from my feline, I kept track of the songs.

Now, back in the day, if I’d made a tape (using the requisite Maxwell XLII-S cassettes, of course) that began with the Bangles, I’d have included a few fellow Paisley Underground acts, such as the Three O’Clock and Rain Parade, an influence or two – the Beatles and Beach Boys – as well as, perhaps, the Plimsouls. I’d have made room for a few of the jangle-pop acts that followed the Bangles, too, such as the Blake Babies, Belly and Matthew Sweet, and added a few neat mixes – maybe Suzanne Vega’s “In Liverpool” going into the original version of “Going Down to Liverpool” by Katrina & the Waves (or ending Side A with one and opening Side B with the other).

Likewise, I probably would have included the original Simon & Garfunkel version of the Bangles’ 1987 hit: 

I may or may not have included the Go-Go’s, but if I did, I would have located my copy of Sid & Susie’s Under the Covers Vol. III collection and matched whatever song I chose (“Capture the Light,” maybe) with “Our Lips Our Sealed” as sung by the Susie in question, Susanna Hoffs. Or, if I had access to a bootleg of it, this cool version (from January 2016) of Susanna and Belinda Carlisle singing it together…

(I always liked to include “rarities” on my tapes.) Rainy Day, the one-off Paisley Underground collective, would have found its way onto the collection, too. I’d also stretch beyond the past, including Jade Bird’s rendition of “Walk Like an Egyptian”…

.. and Molly Tuttle’s “Light Came In (Power Went Out),” which possesses a power-pop sensibility…

…as well as this First Aid Kit song, “Nothing Has to Be True” (from their 2018 Ruins album), which would make a great closing track.

What Pandora returned, however, was predictable, though – by and large – enjoyable. On Thursday, it stuck tight to the ‘80s and Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Go-Go’s, and Belinda Carlisle, while making room for Madonna and Berlin, as well. The biggest surprises were Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” and singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert’s “Twice Struck,” as both were stylistic mismatches. Quarterflash and Pat Benatar tunes were odd inclusions, too, as they they trade more in the AOR sound than jangle-pop. Pandora’s “Discover” mode, which I suppose delves deeper into the musical genomes, turned up the Motels, Tracey Ullman and Rachel Sweet, but not – as I imagined – Jules Shear or Big Star. 

Friday morning, it was more of the same, though the circle expanded to include solo tracks from Susanna Hoffs (including, surprisingly, one song from her delightful 2012 album Someday) and Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s), plus some not-quite-the-same songs from Whitney Houston and Bonnie Tyler. 

All of which is to say, after seven hours of listening, the Pandora formula seems more geared to making matches based on the chart hits from a particular era and not from the overall music of the era. That said, as the songs came and went, the playlist did dig a little deeper. Susanna Hoffs’ version of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” for instance, was a welcome delight…

.. and on a homemade mix I would’ve followed it with a track from Lulu herself because she is far more than Babs, the character she played in the film To Sir With Love:

But, again, such connections seem – at this stage of the listening experience, at any rate – to be beyond Pandora’s purview. Instead, it seems aimed more at casual music fans and/or folks who just want something playing in the background while they work. I have an open mind, however, so will continue with my Bangles channel to see whether it expands its reach, treads water, or retrenches. (I.e., expect the occasional update in the months ahead!)

Here’s my entire Bangles station experience:

Thumbs-Up or No Reaction (Thursday & Friday):

Bangles – If She Knew What She Wants
Cyndi Lauper – All Through the Night
Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is a Place on Earth
Bangles – In Your Room
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Bangles – Eternal Flame
Madonna – Material Girl
Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Belinda Carlisle – If Heaven Was a Place on Earth
Blondie – One Way or Another
Berlin – Take My Breath Away
(switched to “Discover” mode)
Motels – Only the Lonely
Susanna Hoffs – Falling
Tracey Ullman – (Life Is a Rock) But the Radio Rolled Me
Rachel Sweet – I Go to Pieces
Jane Wiedlin – Rush Hour
Suzi Quatro – Too Big
Susanna Hoffs – Grand Adventure
Rachel Sweet – B-A-B-Y
The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
Jane Wiedlin – Give
Bow Wow Wow – I Like Candy
Girlschool – Yeah Right
Romeo Void – Never Say Never
David Wilcox – Out of the Question
Susanna Hoffs – Darling One
The Motels – Remember the Night
Jennifer Paige – Crush
(back to regular mode)
Bangles – Manic Monday (Extended)
Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
Go-Go’s – We Got the Beat
Eric Carmen – Hungry Eyes
Pat Benatar – Love Is a Battlefield
Bangles – Hazy Shade of Winter
Madonna – Open Your Heart
(Friday:)
Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian
Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Madonna – Like a Prayer
The Motels – Only the Lonely (Re-recording)
Bangles – Waiting for You
Susanna Hoffs – To Sir With Love
Belinda Carlisle – Circle in the Sand
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Bangles – Something That You Said
Madonna – Angel
Cyndi Lauper – Iko Iko
Pat Benatar – Hit Me With Your Best Shot
The Bangles – Walking Down Your Street
Blondie – Call Me (Original Long Version)
Jane Wiedlin – One Heart One Way
Susanna Hoffs – Beekeeper’s Blues
Cyndi Lauper – She Bop
Madonna – Crazy for You
Belinda Carlisle – Mad About You
Pat Benatar – Heartbreaker
Blondie – Heart of Glass
Cyndi Lauper – True Colours
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Belinda Carlisle – I Get Weak
Madonna – Into the Groove (Remix)
Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
Pat Benatar – Invincible
Belinda Carlisle – Leave a Light On
Blondie – The Tide Is High
Susanna Hoffs – My Side of the Bed
Modern English – I Melt With You (Re-recorded version)
Roxette – Listen to Your Heart
Duran Duran – Hungry Like a Wolf
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
Susanna Hoffs – Always Enough
Prince – When Doves Cry

Thumbs-Down (Thursday only):

Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69
Debbie Gibson – Only in My Dreams
E.G. Daily – Waiting
Whiteout – Thirty Eight
Kate Pierson – Throw Down the Roses
Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
Mental As Anything – Apocalypso
Quarterflash – Take to to Heart
Vance Gilbert – Twice Struck

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing: