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Non-Prog CD Reviews

Suzanne Vega

Beauty & Crime

Review by Bruce Stringer

Suzanne Vega stands as one of New York’s finest ambassadors, yet – ironically – is also one of it’s most respected commentators. As a total outsider (having never set foot in the U.S.), my view of America’s culture is intrinsically shaped by the artists, actors, musicians, authors and other celebrities that skirt around the shadowy rim of the entertainment industry molding my perceptions through their respective crafts. Often what is on offer is no more profound than a bubble gum wrapper but, occasionally, musician-composers like Suzanne Vega are able to bring strangers (like myself) to the center of her magical realm and, through her artistic flair, provide the here-and-now alongside a flowerbed of nostalgic reminiscence.

It no longer seems cool to “dis” New York for cheap laughs or the inevitable gripe. I believe Dick Cavett made a similar remark 30-odd years ago but, I guess, while many artists still find sardonic sophistication in their detached bad mouthing of New York, Vega can see the romantic – almost film noir – images of her hometown. She is able to illustrate, with fine lyricism, her attachment to the world within the city known as New York, all in vivid black and white.

As an album, Beauty & Crime has a shorter duration than many contemporary releases (clocking in under 35:00) but is all the better for the shorter running time, leaving the listener with a yearning for more. I would hope that, with such a gap between her last album (Songs In Red And Gray, 2001) and this, Vega will be releasing more material sooner than later. The packaging has a neat, nostalgic quality as an old photo album and includes shots of Vega’s new husband, Paul Mills, and daughter, Ruby Froom. Vega’s guitarist, Gerry Leonard, appears alongside a bevy of interesting talent, including the London Studio Orchestra and, of course, the aforementioned KT Tunstall and Mike Visceglia. I hope that this will be the catalyst that brings the long-awaited live DVD to release (along with the Royal Albert Hall show film and Gypsy music clip from 1986, which sorely deserve the DVD treatment!). With renewed interest in Vega’s work and her groundbreaking live performance with her completely animated character, Vega’s openness to cutting edge projects proves her ability to be there for the long haul. Like any great wine it may take time to grow on you, but this CD is an excellent companion piece to Songs In Red And Gray and a fitting tribute to New York nostalgia. Here’s a toast to a great artist and performer!

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
Zephyr & I
The Zephyr of the title is a graffiti artist and was a close friend of Vega’s brother, Tim Vega (now deceased). The song describes a meeting between Zephyr and Vega where a trip down memory lane ensues, constantly reminded of the souls that remain (by the smell of rain). This serves as an introduction to “Ludlow Street” in a lyrical-conceptual manner and is a great launching pad into the album. Famed pop artist, KT Tunstall, appears on “Zephyr & I” in a similar role that Shawn Colvin played previously on the under-rated classic “Days Of Open Hand.”
Ludlow Street
As a dedication to her deceased artist brother, Vega explores the spaces that Tim has left in her life. The doorways that he once frequented in Ludlow Street are now incomplete without his presence and his void is aptly described in the unique manner that makes Vega the composer that she is. The simplicity of the lyrics further defines the very meaning that so many of us would have difficulty in explaining. Vega’s daughter Ruby (from her previous marriage to producer Mitchell Froom) makes her vocal debut on “Ludlow Street” (she also appears on “Unbound”).
New York is a Woman
That’s a title that only Suzanne Vega would come up with! There is a call back to the “Nine Objects of Desire” in the arrangement, though with a larger band sound. The drummer’s brushstrokes are particularly apt alongside the softly-softly approach of Vega’s arpeggiated acoustic chordal work. There is a simplicity in this track that alludes to a more “lounge” sounding artist.
Pornographer's Dream
Never one to shy away from her sensual side, Vega weaves an intriguing yarn with implications of every man’s desire for the likes of Bettie Page and her routines, inviting, inciting, teasing and pleasing. Vega’s long-term bass player extraordinaire makes only the one appearance on this album – I hope that this is only a temporary sabbatical as Mike Visceglia’s personality is very much part of Miss Vega’s sound. Besides being a great guy, he is the solid foundation that has allowed Vega to develop her songs over the past quarter century. Anyone who has seen her scaled down live appearances in between albums can attest to Visceglia’s importance. “Pornographer’s Dream” is a modern take on what Vega had started with songs like “Caramel,” focussing on spatial balance between piano, drums, voice and finger clicks - herein lies what makes Vega’s recordings so dynamic.
Frank & Ava
It’s “not enough to be in love,” even in the case of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. In true Vega style, the tale of these volatile lovers comes to life with excess and a valuable lesson in the bedroom arts. Vega often calls upon the characters of Hollywood’s legends, that frequent her albums in roles that we can all relate to. There is a twangy-ness in the electric guitar, both cool and kind of kitch – but fitting, nonetheless. This is the first single from the album. 
Edith Wharton’s Figurines
Admittedly, I knew nothing about Edith Wharton or her figurines before I picked up this CD. Starting out with voice and guitar, the song develops into a beautiful orchestrated piece. Once again, there is a basic, almost quiet sensitivity to the recording and sadness in the lyrics: Vega manages to illuminate the tragedy in a life being snuffed out during a routine operation, something that could happen at any moment and to anybody without forewarning - sad but inspiring.
Serving as a kind of Yin to the Yang of “Unbound,” “Bound” continues on from “Fifty-Fifty Chance” (from Days Of Open Hand) in that there is (again) an orchestral motivation that fuels the moodiness and atmosphere. There is a straighter, heavier approach to the choruses accented by a crescendo of strings, striking out in stark contrast to Vega’s beautifully light vocal passages. The bridge has a rockier guitar theme, similar to Bryan Adams’ “Run To You,” but there is a not-too-subtle return to the might of the looming ensemble that breaks through like the opening of the heavens, dismissing the 6-string with a swipe of the bow.
As a total departure from Vega’s polished folk-pop-rock sound, “Unbound” is her first electro-techno venture (not withstanding D.N.A.’s “Tom’s Diner” remix) and is an interesting counterpart to “Bound.” There is some nice electric piano and organ but it is the incessant rhythm and bass backing that propels the song forward. The guitar seems almost forgotten, though it makes a return just prior to the end.
As You Are Now
Lyrically, this is classic Vega and could have been from her debut album or Solitude Standing: straight forward and direct, saying much with only a handful of words. An orchestral arrangement does appear but this is a song that Vega could as easily have played live with few overdubs and still maintained maximum effect.
Angel's Doorway
Acting as a bridge between the modern and 60’s-inspired sounds, “Angel’s Doorway” has some really cool background sounds that are more suited to listeners like myself than the orchestral parts on previous songs on this album. Vocally and lyrically Vega hints at the classic “Eve Of Destruction,” but keeps her feet planted firmly in her own realm.
This track appeared as a bonus number on Vega’s Retrospective: The Best Of 2-disc CD version, though as a straight vocal and acoustic guitar version (- a demo, perhaps?). There are some nice background vocals that elevate the choruses on the Beauty & Crime version, complimenting the deep bass frequencies and laid back percussive drumming. The production is incredible, as one might imagine, though I struggle to decide which version I prefer. There is some emotive value in Vega’s scaled-back versions of songs that can be lost with the extra instrumentation, though the benefit is that the songs sound more complete alongside other tracks with a band lineup.
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