18 February 2007

Viva Las Vega

All in all, this was a pretty great Sunday. Here's what I did:

--Slept until 11:00 AM

--Ate a breakfast that someone else (namely, Andrew) prepared

--Played two rousing games of Boggle (In which Andrew and I both found the word gutting. I was certain that would be my mighty triumph word.)

--Read Entertainment Weekly's predictions about who will win the Oscars (And no matter what the naysayers may... um... naysay... I think Jennifer Hudson deserves to win. There are interviews with two anonymous Academy members who call her overrated, but I'd say that's just sour grapes about all the praise she's been getting. Forget those women from "Babel." Hudson rules.)

--Put new songs on my iPod.

And that last one is why I'm here tonight. Do any of you procrastinate about putting your older CDs on your iPod? Because I always find it kind of a chore. First, you have to dig through your dusty old CaseLogic to find the CD you want. Then you have to wait for a century as your computer loads it on to iTunes. And then finally you have to transfer the songs from your desktop to your iPod. Yikes!

Okay... so maybe this isn't the kind of brinksmanship waiting game played by spies on the verge of international warfare, but it's still tedious.

However, I'm always happy when I finally upload older albums. Though I still have a stereo, I almost never listen to CDs. If music isn't brought to me by Apple-created software, I don't hear it that often, so it can be a delightful trip through the past to find an album that's been getting ignored for years as I spin my click wheel. Sometimes, I'm shocked to remember that I actually own a song I almost bought on iTunes. (Hello, Belinda Carlisle! Saved $.99 on that one!)

Today's particularly welcome rediscoveries were albums by Suzanne Vega.

"Luka" and "Tom's Diner" obviously rule, but Suzanne Vega has recorded at least two dozen excellent songs. Do you know the song "Gypsy?" It's got some of the best singer-songwriter lyrics of all time. (So good, in fact, that Vega included them in a book of her collected writings. Sure, that's a touch pretentious, but if any recent writer can get away with it, it's S. V. Put her book next to Jewel's, you know?)

With odd, captivating details, Vega uses "Gypsy" to address a man she desperately loves who nevertheless will never treat her well. He's a beautiful, popular flirt, destined to steal your heart and then make you smile as he breaks it. The persistent movement of the music--a soft drum beat, a guitar line than never stops--suggests a person who will never stop long enough to be held. Ironically, though, Vega's mournful voice is just in front of the rhythm. The music is dancing behind her, and it can't be bothered to catch up to the woman who's singing with so much sadness.

And that's the point. The lyrics are about how she's leaving this man behind, and he's not going to notice. She says:

Please do not ever look for me
But with me you will stay
And you will hear yourself in song
Blowing by one day.

But will he even notice the song if he hears it? Maybe not. That drum beat never tries to catch up with Vega's voice. Sometimes, people never stop their life long enough to watch how other people are drifting out of it. They never notice how much they hurt people by allowing themselves to ignore the consequences of their flirty--yet ultimately detached and distant-- behavior.


Often, when people make folk music this good, I never want them to stop, particualrly when they prove not to be good with other genres. Ani DiFranco, for instance, got self-indulgent and annoying when she abandoned tightly structured, guitar-heavy folk rock in favor of endless jazz canoodling. She's never recovered from that self-conscious artiness, if you ask me.

But when Vega branched out in the mid-90s, she was brilliant in a brand new way. The entrance of industrial dance beats on the album "99.9 F°" allowed her to flirt with techno without losing her intelligence. A song like "Blood Makes Noise" is remarkable in two ways. First, there's the insanely catchy beat, which is built out of a clanging, sticks-on-a-can sound and a bass line looped over and over. Vega's voice gets filtered through a crazy fuzzbox, and the song sounds like the best club track that never hit it big.

Remember, though, how "Luka" sounded like a pretty little ballad until you noticed it was written from the perspective of a battered child? Same situation here. The narrator of "Blood Makes Noise" is a woman who is trying and failing to talk to her doctor about her medical history. The fear of whatever the doctor might say is so crippling that there's blood pounding in her head and ringing in her ears. She clearly thinks a terrible diagnosis is coming--or maybe one just came--and she's trying to explain her own incoherence.

I'd like to help you doctor, yes I really really would
But the din in my head is too loud, and it's no good

We never really know what's up with this woman, but the dread is clear. The song is a dramatic sucker punch wrapped in a rave beat.

And that's probably the lasting genius of Suzanne Vega: She masters the sound of the most popular music styles, but her lyrical content is always dense and surprising. Her love songs are these lush anthems, filled with soaring choruses. But they're about people who imagine thesmselves in The Huncback of Notre Dame ("In Liverpool") and whores who have no regrets ("No Cheap Thrill"). Her rockers are about women questioning their morals ("Marlene on the Wall") or the hypocrisy of Western society ("When Heroes Go Down.")

There just aren't that many muisicians this challenging who are also this easy to listen to. If you're looking for a quick blast of Vega glory, I recommend "Retrospective: The Best of Suzanne Vega." Every album, though, has high points that aren't on this "best of" package. If you're inclined to folk , dip into "Solitude Standing" (that's the one with "Luka") or 2001's "Songs in Red and Gray." If you like folk laced with bold experiments in industrial rock, try the aforementioned "
99.9 F°" or "Nine Objects of Desire."

In all cases, you'll probably find songs you'll want to put on your iPod right away.



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