The Good: Some decent lyrics
The Bad: Some very repetitive lyrics, Musically unimpressive, Vocally unchallenging
The Basics: Sigh. Meh. Suzanne Vega's had better days than Days Of Open Hand.
It is, I believe, a reasonable concern for any serious music reviewer to become concerned that much of what one reviews might be influenced simply by the natural acclimation that comes with repetition. Certainly, many of us do not reread a novel before reviewing a book or rewatch every episode of a boxed set DVD with all of the bonuses multiple times before we review that. Indeed, with the rush to be one of the first to review a new film when it is released, movies are something we seldom sit through multiple times to get a rounded feel of the work before we review it. But with c.d.s, reviewers tend to listen to an album once and give a gut reaction review or we listen to the album multiple times and let the experience truly resonate with us before penning a review. When I found myself recently enjoying Avril Lavigne's debut album Let Go (reviewed here!), I became especially concerned that this might be the case with me. So, I popped in a new (to me) c.d. from Suzanne Vega that did not grab me much the first time around. Relistening to Days Of Open Hand five times in a row and having it not grow on me was certainly proof enough that the affliction I feared I was suffering from was not necessarily a serious concern.
For those who do not regularly read my reviews, I've recently become interested in the music of Suzanne Vega and was quite pleased with Nine Objects of Desire (reviewed here!) and underwhelmed by her best-selling Solitude Standing (reviewed here!). Days Of Open Hand finds me writing another review about another indistinct work and I feel overwhelmingly disappointed with this Suzanne Vega outing.
With eleven tracks, clocking in at just under forty-six minutes, Days Of Open Hand is once again a creation of the mind and imagination of artist Suzanne Vega. A pop album that borders more on folk and jazz than on rock and roll, Days Of Open Hand features Vega's vocals on all tracks, with lyrics she wrote and music she wrote or co-wrote. As well, Vega plays guitar (usually acoustic) on many tracks as well as providing background vocals and playing the fairlight as well. Moreover, she is a co-producer of this album, so it's inconceivable to believe that this is not her artistic vision.
The problem is, on Days Of Open Hand, Vega seems burned out. With under forty-five minutes worth of music, this album is hard to justify as much of it is simply repetitive filler. I wish I didn't feel that way, but I wish more that it were not true. Take the opening song, "Tired Of Sleeping;" this is a four minute, twenty-two second ditty with nine stanzas. Every stanza begins with "Oh Mom" and the four line refrain of "Oh mom / I wonder when I'll be waking / It's just there's so much to do / And I'm tired of sleeping" ("Tired Of Sleeping") pops up as four of those nine stanzas. One additional stanza alters only one of those lines.
Repetition is the killer throughout this album and it wears thin on the listener. "Book Of Dreams" repeats the line "In my book of dreams" twelve times in a song under three and a half minutes, the whole album becomes auditory gelatin. It's murky and viscous and sludge-like. It's uncommon for Suzanne Vega; usually when I am done with one of her albums, there are songs that resonate with me. Not so here; when I am done with this album, nothing sticks with me. "Tired of Sleeping" and "Book of Dreams" appear on her retrospective album and while "Room Off The Street" might be more worthy, I know I won't even miss that when I put this album away.
For those unfamiliar with Suzanne Vega, her works tend to be pop music with a somewhat more avant garde sound and/or lyric set to her songs. Her vocals often take precedence while production is low, giving her more of a vocal jazz sound. Additionally, many of her songs sing stories, which brings to mind comparisons of Vega to folk-rock artists. She has a pleasant alto voice and on Days Of Open Hand, Vega remains safely within her range, never honestly challenging it.
Worse than that, she seldom challenges the listener with volume. Days Of Open Hand is terribly understated in the vocals. Vega whispers along her lyrics forcing the listener to strain to hear her over the instrumentals. Her whispy voice - which is not nearly as annoying as some - is simply overcome by the guitars and percussion. So, when it's not a line that's being repeated ad nauseam, the lines tend to go right over the listener's head.
Most of the songs are slower and quieter. Indeed, outside "Book of Dreams" and the crescendo "Tired of Sleeping" eventually reaches, this is a slow, quiet album. The songs are not fast, the instrumentals are not particularly heavy nor overbearing. Instead, it's a quiet album and the vocals remain a quiet part of a quiet album and they are consumed by the instrumentals. Vega's voice isn't given a chance even against subtle instrumentals.
To return to the lyrics, Vega's albums tend to have songs that either express emotions, capture a moment in time like a photograph or tell a story. She sings of a friend's suicide attempt ("Fifty-Fifty Chance"), paints an image of a prognosticator ("Predictions") and wonderfully expresses a sense of being lost ("Institution Green"). But some of the songs work better as poems, read with one's own sense of rhythm and timing (and volume!) instead of set to Vega's musical vision for them.
The most disturbing example of this is "Men In A War." On this, the second song on the album, Vega sings about "Men / In a war / If they've lost a limb / Still feel that limb / As they did / Before" ("Men In A War") and when she describes that she makes an analogy to her own sense of feeling loss (with a completely different tempo and instrumental accompaniment). But then, she throws in a third person, a "she" who comes out of nowhere after "you" are addressed. This song is all over the place. Lyrically, Vega can't seem to find her subject or her point, musically, the song doesn't know whether it wants to be slow and poignant or singsongy and ridiculous. The lines go from the abstract of men in war to personal loss and the song would have been fine there, but she keeps mixing in more pronouns and its as jumbled as the album as a whole.
And ultimately, that's the problem with this album, for the most part the lines are sublimated to the music, the lines we do hear are either not Vega's best or are so repetitive as to be nonsense. Indeed, even though I like "Room Off The Street," it's not so much for the lyrics as what she says, but rather how she sings them. Despite the simple rhyme scheme, there's something refreshing about being able to hear Vega breathily sing out "Every sigh, every sway / You can hear everything that they say . . ." ("Room Off The Road").
It's still not enough. There are better albums by female vocalists; there are better albums by Suzanne Vega. She's produced albums with memorable melodies or decent lyrics. This is not one of them. In the end this ends up as another album that becomes repetitive auditory sludge when listened to over and over again.
The best track is "Room Off The Street" and worst track is the utterly unmemorable "Rusted Pipe" (after ten listens to this album, I could not tell you anything about this song, even when looking at the lyrics, it's not jogging even a melody!).
For other female artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Wicked Little High - Bird York
Horses - Patti Smith
21 - Adele
Check out how this album stacks up against all of the other music reviews in my pantheon of reviews by visiting my Music Review Index Page where reviews are organized from best to worst!
© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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