Posts Tagged ‘Suzanne Vega’

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:

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All in all, as I remember it, 1992 was a good year. In the spring, Diane and I flew the friendly skies to Californ-i-a, where we toured Hollywood and Beverly Hills, explored Haight-Asbury and Fisherman’s Wharf, and mined for gold in the hills of Nevada City. (That’s me, in San Francisco, above. I was 26.) And, in the fall, we saw one of my Top 10 Concerts of All Time: 10,000 Maniacs at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia.

screen-shot-2017-01-16-at-11-03-06-amIn between, and before and after, we saw many good-to-great shows, beginning in January with John Mellencamp at the Philadelphia Spectrum and ending with…well, my memory’s blank. The early ‘90s have blurred together for me, and rather than list an act we may have seen in 1991, ’93 or ’94, I’ll share the certainties: Neil Young at the Tower Theater (from the very last row in the balcony); Bruce Springsteen and the Non-Street Band four times at the Spectrum; Shawn Colvin at the TLA; and Graham Parker with Lucinda Williams at the Trocadero. We also took in Billy Bragg, Nanci Griffith and others at the WXPN Singer-Songwriter Weekend at Penn’s Landing – unlike their mid-summer fetes nowadays, it was free.

Of the uncertainties: the Tin Angel, which is slated to close next month, opened its doors that year; and the Chestnut Cabaret was still open. I’m sure we saw shows at both venues. The Keswick Theater in Glenside was open for business, too, and we definitely saw a show or two there…though who, I can’t say. The Valley Forge Music Fair was another favorite concert stop – provided there was someone we wanted to see, of course. (And we did see Trisha Yearwood there on her Hearts in Armor tour…but that could have been 1993.)

Diane and I, by then, were also in the sandboxed universe of Prodigy.

In the wider world, Microsoft released Windows 3.1 in April; riots in L.A. erupted in April after four LAPD officers were acquitted of using excessive force against Rodney King; Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show and Jay Leno was named as his replacement; the siege at Ruby Ridge in Idaho helped spark the antigovernment/militia movement that culminated in 1995 with the Oklahoma City bombing; and Bill Clinton won that fall’s presidential election.

Oh, and there was one other important event this year: Bob Fest!

And, with that, today’s Top 5: My Top Albums of 1992.

1) 10,000 Maniacs – Our Time in Eden. As I mentioned in this Top 5, I pretty much played this, the studio swan song of the 10,000 Maniacs with Natalie Merchant, nonstop – well, as close to nonstop as possible. It’s everything I love about music: It’s poppy, rocky, bright, light and deep, with melodies that soar and lyrics that, if one listens to them, mean more than most. The juxtaposition of the jangly with the profound is something I adore.

2) R.E.M. – Automatic for the People. Released on October 6th, the same day as Our Time in Eden, this classic offering from R.E.M. is just that – a classic. “Hey, kids, rock ’n’ roll…”

3) Neil Young – Harvest Moon. So, perhaps, my memory is playing tricks with me: Although I remember playing Our Time in Eden nonstop…this low-key classic from Neil Young, released on October 27th, received much attention from me (as did R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, for that matter). Of note, in typical Neil fashion, he toured with the album long before it was released; when we saw him in March, he pretty much played the entire album with just a smattering of past favorites.

4) Lucinda Williams – Sweet Old World. Above, I mentioned having seen Graham Parker and Lucinda in concert this year – one of the more unlikely pairings we’ve witnessed, really. Guitarist Gurf Morlix was with her, and he was just phenomenal; and by the time she and the band left the stage…well, I have no memory of Parker, who was the headliner. Which speaks volumes, given that I remember quite a bit about Lucinda’s set – “Hot Blood,” especially.

5) Suzanne Vega – 99.9F. Up until this point, Suzanne was a somewhat conventional urban folkie. On this album, however, she expanded her straightforward sound to include electronic textures and seductive rhythms. The title song is a masterpiece; and the album is, too.

There were quite a few other solid albums released this year: Juliana Hatfield’s solo debut, Hey Babe; Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch and Lucky Town; Tracy Chapman’s Matters of the Heart; Robert Cray’s I Was Warned; the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray; Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Come On Come On; Gin Blossoms’ New Miserable Experience; Trisha Yearwood’s Hearts in Armor; the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall; Keith Richards’ Main Offender… and another longtime favorite of mine, Neneh Cherry’s jazzy Homebrew. Here’s “Move With Me” from it:

IMG_5179This is the last issue that I have of Record magazine. Whether this was the last issue, I do not know, though that’s my hunch – the mailing slip lists my subscription’s end date as June 1986, and I can’t imagine I would’ve tossed those issues out. (I was something of a packrat when it came to anything music-related. I still am, though less so.) Anything is possible, though.

Anyway, by the time I received this issue in the mail, I was 20; and starting my second semester at the Penn State mothership. An English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing: that was me. I was also a deejay, though I was not all that I played; as I’ve written elsewhere, I was one of the rotating hosts on the Folk Show, which aired on the student-run WPSU-FM. “Folk,” on my twice-monthly stints, had a rather broad definition, especially when in my preferred 6am-10am Saturday- or Sunday-morning slot; I played everything from stereotypical folk music (Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Holly Near) to the Fugs and even Elvis Costello circa Almost Blue. “A Good Year for the Roses,” which I discovered via a listener request, became a semi-staple for the rest of my days on the air.

Another semi-staple: Neil Young’s haunting rendition of “Home on the Range” from the Where the Buffalo Roam soundtrack.

All of which leads to Today’s Top 5: January/February 1986 via Record magazine. It’s really more of a 1985 overview…

1) Don Henley – “The Boys of Summer.” Henley, who’s back on top of the charts with his Cass County album, graces the cover of the issue, as the above picture shows; and inside is an interview conducted by Bud Scoppa, who calls him a “seasoned 38-year-old artist” in the introduction. Henley was two albums into a successful solo career after a decade-long stint with the Eagles, and flying high on the strength of the hit “Boys of Summer” from Building the Perfect Beast, which had been released the previous fall. “I’m not ashamed of having been in the Eagles,” he says in the interview. “I think we accomplished a great deal and added some pretty good music to the annals of rock ’n’ roll. Some of it was crap, and I hated some of it, but when you’re in a group, you can’t get everything you want.”

I liked the Eagles; and I liked Henley’s first solo effort, I Can’t Stand Still. Building the Perfect Beast, I thought (and still think), was slightly better – not a four- or five-star release, mind you, but enjoyable nonetheless. “Sunset Grill” and “A Month of Sundays,” for instance, are excellent. But no song of his, not even with the Eagles, is as good as the one he crafted with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers: “The Boys of Summer.”

“I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said don’t look back, you can never look back…”

IMG_51852) Bruce Springsteen – “My Hometown.” This issue includes a Critic’s Poll of the best of everything for the preceding year. Thirty-two of the magazine’s contributors put forth their picks, and the results were tallied: Henley’s “Boys of Summer” was voted the top Single of the Year; and Springsteen was voted Artist of the Year. Since releasing Born in the U.S.A. in 1984, he’d embarked on a mega-successful tour that played arenas and stadiums; to paraphrase the piece, he won over a legion of new fans while retaining the longtime faithful, who didn’t hold his newfound popularity against him. “[P]eople still believe they can expect something from Springsteen—and, in the age of diminished expectations, that’s saying something.”

A few months back, thanks to a gift certificate our friend Luanne gave me to HDTracks, I picked up (i.e., downloaded) the high-res reissue of Born in the U.S.A. Not a five-star album, but one that – like Building the Perfect Beast – has its moments, many of which were released as singles. (In fact, seven of its 12 songs became Top 10 hits.) “My Hometown,” especially, resonates with me now in a way it didn’t back then.

IMG_51893) Suzanne Vega – “Marlene on the Wall.” “A walk for New York’s updated folkie Suzanne Vega, on the strength of her melodic, poetic Suzanne Vega LP,” says the Best Debuts paragraph in the Critics Poll. I first heard Vega when I played this song on the air early one morning; a fellow Folk Show deejay recommended her at a staff meeting, I think.

The other artists singled out: Lone Justice, Guadalcanal Diary, Sade, Whitney Houston, Zeitgeist, Dwight Yoakam, Katrina and the Waves, Fishbone and Freddie jackson.

IMG_51954) Neil Young – “After Berlin.” There, on page 40, is a full-page ad for Neil Young in Berlin, an 11-song strong representation of a 1982 West Berlin concert that was due out on VHS on January 13, 1986. There’s also a review of the video, which basically laments its brevity: “[W]hat lingers is the hunger for a show with the scope Young’s career demands. Still, Young’s phenomenal guitar work (the man’s improvisation rides an arc between convulsion and exorcism) ignites incendiary versions of ‘Cinnamon Girl,’ ‘Like a Hurricane’ and ‘Hey Hey, My My,” and these, plus the side-splitting techno-ballet performed by Neil and fellow space cadet Nils Lofgren on ‘Transformer Man,’ make Berlin, at the very least, worth a rental.”

The review doesn’t mention “After Berlin.” It’s a great lost song – and, by that, I mean part of its greatness is that it was left behind, forever etched in a specific place and time. He wrote it in the afternoon, played it that night and never looked back. “Can’t go back to where I started from/the road goes on and on….”

IMG_51985) Richard Thompson – “When the Spell Is Broken.” Another Folk Show staple. Thompson, of course, came from Fairport Convention, the English folk-rock band that also introduced the world to Sandy Denny; and his work with wife Linda was widely heralded. This song leads off his 1985 Across a Crowded Room LP, which the Critics Poll lists as No. 9 on the Albums of the Year list; the album is also named “Most Overlooked.” As a whole, it’s said, it was inspired by his divorce from Linda.  This song, my favorite from the set, features barbed guitar and lyrics: “Don’t swear your heart/from the very start/love letters you wrote/get pushed back down your throat/and leave you choking/when the spell is broken.”