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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega-Retrospective : the best of Suzanne Vega UK 2 CD edition

Review by Bruce Stringer

Suzanne Vega is one of my all time favourite artists and has continued to compose compelling, thought-provoking material which has made her one of the music industry's most prolific songwriters of our time. This compilation serves as un update to the already available Tried and True release a few years back and on July 7th 2003 the British release of Retrospective hit the shelves with a UK-only bonus CD.

The selection of material is strong, however it does avoid certain critical tracks from her albums which may have added to the impact of this release. The 21 tracks are in no particular order (except for the higher charting songs appearing at the start), however there tends to be a more even mix of material than on Tried and True.

The CD booklet includes some great photos of the strangely beautiful Vega through the years, lyrics and some interesting biographical notes from Lenny Kaye. The overall packaging is far superior to Tried and True. I would vote this as the best compilation release by any artist of the past 2 years. It is a purchase I can only recommend for so many different reasons.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2003 Year Book Volume 2 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Disc 1
Luka
Suzanne's biggest single and late 80's classic. If you ask someone whether they know Suzanne Vega there's a good chance they'll say "My name is Luka". It was a huge single in many parts of the world and, at the time, gained a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year. The song deals with domestic abuse which was a relatively new concern at the time of its release and, although Luka was a real person, his true story does not include any of the abuse that is portrayed here. A Spanish version of the song was released and well worth trying to hunt down as it is interesting to hear as a piece of music and reflect on how different the lyrics may be.
Tom's Diner (DNA version):
Apparently, there was a lot of conversation as to the validity of this version at the time of its release. True Suzanne fans argued that the song was not represented properly in this context and that the point of the song - the final section of lyrics - was missing. The song sold well internationally, regardless of what Vega-philes (myself included) felt, and gave an injection in the arm of her career. It appeared on a various artists album Tom's Diner and the original appears on Suzanne's second album (and at the end of the UK bonus disc of this release). Over the years I have grown to like this version.
Marlene on the Wall
The first song I ever heard from Suzanne (when I saw the video clip as a child), Marlene… is a great acoustic piece and demonstrates Miss Vega's acoustic guitar genius. If you are a guitar player and have ever watched her fingers you will note how intricate her arpeggiations and chord structures are. Don't be fooled by the capo on her guitar - she really is a great guitar player and is someone I have come back to time after time to get compositional ideas from. The lyrics deal with a time when Suzanne had switched her television on to catch a Marlene Dietrich film. As the picture tube 'warmed up' from black to an eventual picture she heard a voice on the screen say (something to the effect of) "You have been the cause of the downfall of so many men. What do you say to that?" and the reply being a surprisingly direct "…kiss me" That was Suzanne's first time in seeing the lady who was Marlene. The story of the song deals with a similar wondering of the power over another through emotional entanglement. Alongside Knight Moves and Solitude Standing, possibly Suzanne's best material. Pure genius.
Caramel
This remains one of Suzanne's favourite compositions and is a sultry, almost jazzy tune that is lightly suspended with some dissonance. This is a light look at the metaphoric relationship between senses, using food (and in this case caramel) in a sexual context where enough sometimes means too much and whether wanting too much could merit any real forgiveness if one indulges. In other words: lust and what keeps us at bay.
99.9F°
This single, which is also the title of the album, is another of Suzanne's sexually themed wonderings. Either that or it's about hot weather…er, probably not. With lyrics like "…rising possibilities" and "…if I touch you I might get what you've got" I think she is referring to feverish desire. This features great production, from a great album that is way ahead of its time.
Tired of Sleeping
This is a nice track, defining its place in Vega's catalogue. It is more folky than other tracks from Days of Open Hand, but it works in quite well with the album's format. I would have hoped for more tracks from that experimental opus on this compilation (songs like Rusted Pipe, and Big Space, for instance), however the CD can only be so long. It would be nice to see Suzanne perform more tracks from that album live - as I understand it, during the filming of her upcoming DVD movie, Room Off the Street was performed. A great live version of Tired of Sleeping appeared on the 99.9F CD single.
Small Blue Thing
Suzanne's self-titled debut album consisted of some of the most beautifully written and perfectly performed pieces of story telling to music. Smooth in a folk sensibility, yet crafted with a rock-pop sound Small Blue Thing is a wonderful tale of exactly that: a small blue thing, be it an eye, a marble, whatever. I would like to know what goes on in Miss Vega's mind to be able to have so much meaning in so few words. A stand out track off her first album, it tends to sit well at this position.
Blood Makes Noise
An industrial sounding production and some interesting synthesised sounds allow this track to breath in a kind of 'push and pull' sense. Suzanne's vocals are distorted and the song fades out after a couple of minutes. It's a great pop-rock song and interesting direction away from the acoustic sound that she was known for previously.
Left of Center
From the soundtrack to Pretty in Pink, this single relates to the main character in the film and includes a well-composed guitar solo from Jon Gordon. It's a simple progression and takes Suzanne in a direction closer to straight rock. Joe Jackson makes an appearance on piano, working in well with the songstress. Another favourite and crowd pleaser (ironically performed only with bass and vocals on the 2001 acoustic tour), this is brilliant!
(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie May
Track 3 from Songs in Red and Gray, this nice little tune includes some interesting piano sounds and mandolin. The lyrics are a humorous kind of answer to Rod Stewart's Maggie May from way back concerning the gender roles that society has accepted and Suzanne is turning her back on. Entertaining and obvious, yet no one says it quite like this lady.

In Liverpool
Based on Vega's visit to Liverpool where a previous boyfriend came from, this song paints a portrait of longing and unobtainable desire for a loved one. The chorus is brilliant and there are some interesting resolving passages that keep it moving steadily along with it's 6/8 timing. It is possible that Suzanne is referring to the Liver Building clock tower overlooking the Mersey in the song, which - if so - would explain much in the setting of the story.

Gypsy
Gypsy is another beautifully crafted story thanks to a true master and demonstrates Suzanne's lighter, freely wandering style. This comes from the classic Solitude Standing album.
Book of Dreams
This is a great single and with lyrics referring to "…days of open hands" we are introduced to a new chapter in Suzanne's artistic, lyrical and musical development. Nice and poppy, it was a pity that the album, that the lyrics refer to, didn't do better as it was a very bold move in a new direction. For collectors: the CD single of this song was also released as a limited edition hologram cover along with the highly under-rated Big Space and 2 great live tracks.
No Cheap Thrill
Suzanne's excursions into discussions of sexuality are entertainingly dealt with in this cheap 'wink and grin' tale of sexual (strip?) poker. It's about choice, what cards we are dealt, what we hold to our chests and what we choose to show… So, Suzanne, who has the aces? This comes from my least favourite of Suzanne's albums, Nine Objects of Desire, due to its production - not song writing.
Calypso
A kind of relative of Gypsy, Calypso is a beautiful love story where a woman is setting her lover free "after so many years". The song has simple, yet effective guitar work and spacious production. It is also from Solitude Standing.
World Before Columbus
A sweetly inquisitive piece that deals with how one would feel with the loss of a loved one. This song also appears on Nine Objects - an album which suffers from Mitchell Froom's tendency to sway away from the use of simplistic acoustic sounds. I felt that the production took so much away from the songs, however this track manages to survive intact against all odds. It is based on, of course, another set of great Vega-isms.
Solitude Standing
By far Suzanne's most progressively arranged piece, Solitude is a portrait of a previous room mate and lends a ghostly image to the person who is there, yet profoundly outcast from the group. The keyboard parts include ascending runs which allow the building of this truly unique song (which are played with guitar on the live, bonus version - see below). This is one of my favourite Vega songs and great mix of electric and acoustic performances.
Penitent
Previewed on Suzanne's 2001 acoustic tour, Penitent is a good reason why Songs in Red and Gray could be held up alongside her first two albums in a strong light. It's a textured, spiritual piece with Rupert Hine's exhilarating production. Penitent is a great inclusion to this compilation and proves that Suzanne is as good as she has ever been.
Rosemary
The first time Rosemary was officially released was on the Tried and True compilation and has regularly been performed live in recent times. As with other lyrics, this song once again allows Suzanne to paint pictures which are immediately identifiable and relatable. As a wordsmith she has clearly refined her art to speak with a deep emotive quality and, even if you don't understand her pieces at once, they grow on you and tend to make you think on different tangents away from the straight lines allowing you to come to your own conclusions.
The Queen and the Soldier (live)
I just have one question: why this song live? Suzanne's single releases have seen some great live B-sides, yet this is probably (for me) the least interesting of them all. It is a traditional folk song in the truest sense. It tells a story, and the music is nothing more than a vehicle for some well written lyrics. I have never thought much of this song and I feel it is slightly less interesting than the original studio version. There is nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of the recording however why couldn't there have been the truly amazing live (delay) version of Knight Moves from the early 90's B-sides or the Prince's Trust version of Marlene on the Wall or something like Black Widow Station from the Live in London EP. Now, there's something that I'd like seen released with bonus tracks or as part of a live compilation CD!
Woman on the Tier (I'll See You Through)
 Previously only available on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, Woman… is a production collaboration with ex-husband Mitchell Froom and is a step on from the 99.9F° sound. Industrial and harsher than previous material, this track fades out very quickly and is a nice departure from her acoustic sound.

Disc 2
***Bonus CD tracks
The live songs on this CD were recorded on May 9th after the US release of this retrospective and there is mention of it between songs, making the timing of this UK version quite interesting. There is also the original version of Tom's Diner which closes, after a newly penned piece, Anniversary.
Caramel (live)
With a brief live intro discussing not getting any sleep (possibly referring to Tired of Sleeping) Suzanne smoothly moves into Caramel, which I feel works much better live than in the studio. This was a track that I didn't pay much attention to until I saw her play it live acoustically in 2001 in Nottingham, where it was really brought out of it's shell - a beautiful, jazz-tinged tune.
Widow's Walk (live)
An instant classic from Songs in Red and Gray, Widow's Walk discusses Suzanne viewing her marriage breaking down. This song was previewed on her acoustic tour and had a magical quality about it as it was. Suzanne told me after the show when asked whether it would be recorded as a stripped down, acoustic version that the song was to be a band effort. As a fan I would hope to see a live release from that tour. This version is punchy and dynamic and works well with the electro-acoustic arrangement. It is great stuff.
Solitude Standing (live)
With no keyboards, this slightly sped-up version stands strong in that is more open, with delayed guitars and tight snare sound. It is both moody and haunting. Suzanne's voice waivers a little due to lack of breath, yet her energy and input into her performance more than makes up for any vocal issues. The song hangs at the end and the band burst into the next one.
Blood Makes Noise (live)
This is a great version! Effected guitar parts work well with the drum loop, however there is a point where the guitar mix bursts in. Actually the bass, throughout these live recordings, tends to rise and fall, but this could be due to limitations with the recording facilities.
In Liverpool (intro/narrative) (live reading)
I believe this is the same reading that English audiences were given during the acoustic tour (which was also a preview to her incredibly insightful book, Passionate Eye). Her words are quirky and humorous and written in a way that all can relate to. If you haven't read her book I would highly recommend the purchase of a copy.

In Liverpool (live)
Another great track, this focuses on a more acoustic arrangement than the album version. At times droopy and then plodding and picked up, this is Suzanne at her strongest and demonstrates that you do not need to rely solely on a fast and heavy rock band to produce great songs. If it's the ability to hook people in with slow songs that separates the kids from the adults, then Suzanne is a great-grandmother!
Anniversary (new song)
Anniversary is a beautifully composed acoustic and vocal track that sees Suzanne at her most comfortable: open and honest, plucking away on her guitar telling a story we can all relate to.
Tom's Diner
This version is the original from Solitude Standing and sits very nicely at the end. For fans that felt cheated with the DNA version then hit play on this and compare Suzanne's brilliant acapella version.
 
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