Music

Suzanne Vega: Close Up, Volume One, Love Songs

The folk-poet of the 1980s re-records her catalog with acoustic simplicity, thematically organized.


Suzanne Vega

Close Up, Volume One: Love Songs

Label: Amanuensis Productions
US Release Date: 2010-02-14
UK Release Date: Import
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The perspective of middle age makes many things look tiny and fragile as they disappear in your personal rear-view mirror. Popular art gets small very quickly. The music you loved, or even just knew quite well, at 17 or even 27 quickly becomes a speck as you cross 40 and head for 50. Sure, "Daytripper" or I Love Lucy might still loom large in 2010, but when was the last time you thought about, say, "Breaking Us in Two", the 1983 hit by Joe Jackson?

Suzanne Vega made seven remarkable albums of intelligent pop music between 1985 and 2007, but for most people she is an interesting footnote to the 1980s—not exactly a pair of purple leg-warmers, but not far off. A decent gaggle of sensitive college kids loved her eponymous 1985 debut. "Marlene on the Wall" was even a kind of hit, with a video on MTV. This was smart-kid pop music, though, and nothing like the vintage '80s stuff (Duran Duran, Poison) that stained the decade in so many memories. Vega was an English major at Barnard and broke in via Greenwich Village coffeehouses, just like Tracy Chapman was a Tufts student playing in Harvard Square (remember "Fast Car" from 1988?).

In 1987, Vega struck pop gold with "Luka", her temporarily ubiquitous and impossibly catchy tune (about, er, . . . child abuse), and Solitude Standing reached the 11th spot on the Billboard charts. The disc's first tune was its most unusual: an a cappella sing-song story set in "Tom's Diner". But a few year's later, a pair of British producers remixed "Tom's Diner" with a propulsive groove, and Vega's cushiony, gentle voice was a hit again.

Then pooooooffff; she was mostly gone from view.

In fact, she made five more albums, and truly fine ones, but her chart success was over. The bossa nova "Caramel" (1996) appeared in the movie The Truth About Cats and Dogs (and in the trailer for the film Closer). But time was doing its thing to Vega. Pop music fashions had moved on and her patient storytelling and literate lyricism had no place in any radio format or on American Idol. A&M Records dropped her, even though her 1990s albums experimented with dance beats, industrial sounds, and world music. Another "Luka" was not coming.

If you were following Vega and loved her art, then she was decidedly relevant: hosting radio shows, collaborating with jazz musicians like Bill Frisell, judging the Independent Music Awards, and experimenting with web-based music. Her 2007 Beauty and Crime was released on the legendary jazz label, Blue Note, and it even won a Grammy for engineering.

If you were following and enjoying Vega, she was vital and interesting, a treasure—still active and smart and making beautiful art. If you were following and enjoying her, then you were probably someone older, someone who first loved her work when you were younger, digging "Luka" or "Marlene on the Wall" or "Small Blue Thing" during the Reagan administration. Which, for the record, was about a quarter century ago.

(Really.)

2010 finds Suzanne Vega embarked on a retrospective project, and one that is also a kind of reclamation. All those great recordings that came out on A&M—they belong to A&M. So Vega decided to re-record scores of her songs in spare acoustic form, putting up her own money so the masters would be hers. She is releasing these reinterpretations in four thematically grouped collections. The first is Close Up: Volume One, Love Songs, just out.

In some cases, the original recordings were gentle folk-rock arrangements not that different from the new versions. As a result, many of these new versions are less reinventions than clarifications that carry the wisdom of time. "Marlene" is basically the same, stripped of some distracting drums and of some telltale 1985 synthesizer. In her singing, Vega has not lost the whispery tones that made her so distinct as a young artist, but she has added more skill in phrasing and greater expressiveness at low volume. The new "Marlene" is better in each small change, and particularly better because the words are now more clearly at the forefront. We hear the song better now: a poster of Dietrich staring down at a young woman making romantic mistakes of inevitability.

In other cases, the new versions are more dramatic departures. The original arrangement of "Caramel" featured vibes, a gently pulsing samba beat, and a captivating accompaniment including clarinet and trumpet in sugary cushion. Here, we get just a single acoustic guitar, finger snaps, and Vega's lone voice. The original "99.9" used electronic dance beats, crunching but tightly compressed guitar, filter effects on Vega's voice—all production techniques that seemed utterly central to the song. The re-recording contains no percussion, no distortion or filtering, just the simplest bass line and acoustic guitar. On both of these songs, the lyrics present with clarity, but some of the contrast and shading that was delicious in the original is missing.

The rule that simpler, more acoustic songs are more successfully recreated here, however, does not hold. "If You Were in My Movie", also from 99.9Fº, is very different but works better. Without the doubled vocals and slapping percussion, Vega's spoken-word verses punch harder and stand out more. Sometimes the songs that were spikier with all the studio production turn out to be more urgent in a bare-bone situation.

The most important thing that Close Up establishes, at least in this first incarnation, is that Suzanne Vega has been a consistently brilliant songwriter and storyteller for a quarter century. Whatever nostalgia a middle-aged listener may have for the original records, these songs have a lyric and melodic craft that does not require drums or the repetition of commercial radio.

About now, this middle-aged reviewer might be tempted to make a crack about how kids these days just don’t know what they are missing; how Suzanne Vega is no Lady Gaga (born, for the record, the year after Suzanne Vega was released), and thank goodness for it. But that isn't necessarily the case. In 1985, Vega may have seemed slight in some ways. 25 years from now, who knows where Stefani Germanotta will be.

But what we know today, and what Close Up makes clear, is that Suzanne Vega deserves to be heard again quite aside from nostalgia. These songs—the intimacy and close observation of "Gypsy", the assertiveness of "I'll Never Be (Your Maggie May)", the weariness of "Bound"—stand up tall.

Maybe if she had appeared on our pop radar at a different time, Suzanne Vega would have the stature of Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro. The bare, acoustic truth is: she's that good.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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