Feb 032010

Suzanne Vega fascinates me. I have been listening to her first album for twenty-some years. I’m still spinning the same LP–somehow I haven’t worn it out. That record is stark in its arrangements, lyrical content, and musical composition, and I never get tired of listening to it.

The arrangements on that record are a unique mix of folk with acoustic guitar at the center, plus 1980s new-wave with super-chimey electric guitar and fat synths. But several tracks have no drums, and there are many places where someone decided not to throw in a bunch of kitchen-sink vocal overdubs and all that formula stuff.

The lyrics on that record say more with what is unsaid. Vega wrote songs with a brilliant and vicious discipline to cut out so much. The lyrics are distilled down to dense pictures and emotions. “Today I am a small blue thing,” and “You held me in your handsome fist.”

Vega composed music with a strange and smart approach to melody and guitar. Like her lyrics, the guitar parts are simple and leave lots of notes out. She plays everything in standard tuning, which proves that one can get new colors and harmonies without going all crazy on the alternate tunings. Her vocal melodies feel like modal jazz lines to me, more about the melody than about fitting some lyrics to some blocky chord changes. She often hints at chords on the guitar, following the vocal melody rather than dictating it.

In the past year or two I have heard that Vega is re-recording her back catalog in stark, acoustic settings. I’ve been eagerly waiting for this stuff to come out. After her first album, everything else has been produced with much more of a pop sound. I think that her first record set a new sound into motion, a folky new-pop kind of sound, and her subsequent albums have kept that going. But nothing has been so simple and in-your-face poetry like that first record.

Yesterday Vega’s first “Close Up” album was released, the first of these re-recordings. My first listen greatly lifted my spirits while I am in a tedious winter funk. The CD contains mostly dry vocals, lots of acoustic guitar, and little bass or electric guitar around the sides. It sounds lo-fi, home-made, and brilliant. Some folks may find this approach boring, but I love it. To me, it’s the live album she never made. I’m looking forward to hearing more.

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