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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1768

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Suzanne Vega: Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles
by George Graham

(Independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/23/2014)

By the mid 1980s, the singer-songwriter had fallen out of the popular eye, replaced by alternative rock and dance music on the pop charts. Then in the late 1980s, the folkie made a comeback, and one of the people most responsible for that was Suzanne Vega, who together with Tracy Chapman had surprise hits with songs that came from a folk-style perspective with literate lyrics.

Over the years, Ms Vega's style was evolving, and her collaboration with producer, and then husband Mitchell Froom led to come albums that were rather sonically experimental and hardly the stuff of the iconic acoustic-guitar wielding folk scene, though with lyrics no less thoughtful.

While Ms. Vega has remained influential over the years -- her song Tom's Diner has had numerous covers and remixes -- and she is active in various ways such as theatrical performances -- she has not exactly been very prolific in her recorded output. Now she has released her eighth album of new material in 29 years called Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles. And on it, she has in some ways, gone back to her early style.

Ms. Vegas's upbringing in an family that could be described as Bohemians helped to contribute to her early venture into songwriting and into the New York folk scene at an early age. She attended the famous High School of the Performing Arts in New York and interestingly specialized in dance. She honed her songwriting at the late Jack Hardy's Monday night gatherings though which passed such figures as John Gorka and Lyle Lovett, and was part of the Fast Folk musical magazine that came out of those sessions. It was in 1985 that Ms. Vega was signed to A&M Records and released her self-titled debut album, which would be followed in 1987 by her hit recording Solitude Standing which contained her two biggest hits, Luka about an abused child, and Tom's Diner, which became influential in unexpected ways, not only for the remixes that were done with her a cappella vocal part, but the song was used as a benchmark in the research that went into the developing the mp3 system of digital recording.

After the end of her collaboration with and marriage to producer Mitchell Froom, which resulted in the albums 99.9 Farenheit Degrees and Nine Objects of Desire, Ms. Vega has lately been working frequently with Irish guitarist and producer Gerry Leonard. He was part of a fine short-lived band called Hinterland, whose sonically multi-colored guitar work and producing skills have also been put to work for David Bowie, Duncan Sheik, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper and Rufus Wainwright, among others. The Vega-Leonard collaboration is an excellent one, and his production work really can enhance her songs without excess, even though the added musicians include a string section and such heavyweights as Tony Levin on bass, Jay Bellarose on drums and jazz singer Catherine Russell on backing vocals. There is an interesting sonic juxtaposition in the instrumentation. Gerry Leonard's spacey guitars are sometimes combined with a bluegrassy mandolin and banjo played by Larry Campbell. But like much of Gerry Leonard's production, it's both tasteful and sonically interesting.

With a title like this album has, one is reminded of the songs on Ms. Vega's debut album, and in some ways, it does revisit the style and allegorical lyrical approach. The relatively short 36-minute CD opens with a piece called Crack in the Wall, which is a nice summary of the album's sound -- a mixture of the electric and acoustic with Ms. Vega's trademark vocals in fine form. <<>>

Rather more electric in sound is Fool's Complaint the song that make reference to the Queen of Pentacles in the album's title. The lyrics are suitably poetic while Gerry Leonard and the band crank it up some. <<>>

One of the first songs written for the new album is I Never Wear White which Vega and Leonard were working on as they made a series of recordings called Up Close, revisiting some of her earlier songs. The electric setting is appropriate for Ms. Vega's musical persona on this piece. <<>>

Portrait of the Knight of Wands proves to be one of the most interesting tracks on the album. The lyrics start out seeming like one of those chivalrous tales along the lines of Ms. Vega's The Queen and the Soldier on her first album. But the chorus says that the knight's "mission was the transmission of technology." <<>>

Another somewhat allegorical set of words comes on Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain which is based on the Pandora story. This track is another creative sonic mix featuring a string orchestra, one based in Prague and recorded there, providing a slightly exotic tinge to parts of the song. <<>>

Song of the Stoic is a kind of lyrical follow-up to her hit Luka, It recounts the story of an older man who was abused as a child. <<>>

Also rather metaphysical in its lyrical direction is a song called Jacob and the Angel. Gerry Leonard and Ms Vega provide the accompaniment to keep the music as intriguing as the words. <<>>

The CD ends with about its only disappointment. Horizon (There is a Road) is dedicated to the late Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel, but the musical treatment is a bit lame. Even Ms. Vega has done a lot better vocally in the past. <<>>

Suzanne Vega's new CD, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, her first album of new material in seven years, is her best release in decades. She gets back to the folky style and somewhat allegorical lyrics of her early music, and her continuing collaboration with producer and guitarist Gerry Leonard is a fruitful one, with music that is sonically creative and generally quite tasteful. Leonard is listed as co-composer with Ms Vega on several of the tunes. Ms. Vega, herself is in fine form both as a composer and vocalist on this record.

Our grade for sound quality is an A-minus. Ms. Vega's vocal is well recorded and captures her distinctive and attractive vocal character, and the mix is nicely done by engineer Kevin Killen. Like many such projects these days, it was recorded in several places, so the musicians would not have to travel. The string orchestra was recorded in Prague, presumably for budgetary reasons. But the CD was mastered with the typical mindless pursuit of maximum loudness, so the music's dynamics were undermined and it ends up sounding flat and sonically unexciting.

While Suzanne Vega's influence on the new folk scene has been great, she has not exactly been showering us with a stream of new material. I suppose that quality can be better than quantity, and in that respect, Ms. Vega has made it worth the wait.

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