Monday, April 8, 2013

Precursor To Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects Of Desire.

The Good: Good voice, Wonderful sound, Nice mix over the album
The Bad: Some ridiculously simple rhymes, Short
The Basics: Suzanne Vega impresses me on my first full album listening experience with Nine Objects Of Desire, a diverse-sounding, generally well-written series of musical stories.

This evening, I'm feeling somewhat verbally lame as I listen for the eighth time to Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects Of Desire. Whenever I encounter a new (to me) artist, I try to come up with an analogy that compares the new listening experience to one that I've already had. On my second listen through this album, I was hearing Vega's voice, her songs, her album and the style and sound came across as remarkably familiar. I've sat staring at my music collection to try to figure out why this particular artist is nagging at me so much and I am at a loss. The best I can say as I begin is that listening repeatedly to Nine Objects Of Desire reminds me some of Fiona Apple on When The Pawn . . . (reviewed here!) and Extraordinary Machine (reviewed here!). When I'm done with the album, I feel like I do after listening to Aimee Mann's soundtrack to Magnolia (reviewed here!). Sigh. So much for verbal lameness. Let's look at this album.

With twelve tracks spanning only thirty-nine minutes, Suzanne Vega's Nine Objects Of Desire is a mellow, jazzy pop-rock album that I went into cold. I was familiar with Vega solely from her two mainstream hit singles "Luka" and "Tom's Diner." Beyond that, I did not know her works, but she has been consistently recommended to me by people who know my musical tastes. Based on Nine Objects Of Desire, I think those people who recommended her to me have a pretty solid idea of what I like.

Nine Objects Of Desire presents Suzanne Vega as a vocally-strong artist with an eclectic musical backing that ranges all around the musical spectrum but generally falls within the range of pop-rock, though with songs like "Tombstone" and "Caramel," there are strong jazz influences. For some reason, she is characterized as "folk," by a number of places, but songs like "No Cheap Thrill" and "Birth-day (Love Made Real)" are pure pop. Perhaps Vega is considered "folk" because her lyrics use stronger diction and tell stories more than most pop-rock albums.

I love folk music for its storytelling nature, but usually folk is less refined than what Vega presents on this album. On "Headshots," Vega is backed by drums, electric guitars, bass, keyboards and a sample of a whistle as she sings "The sign said 'headshots' / And that was all. / A picture of a boy / And a number you could call. / Two eyes in the shade / A mouth so sad and small. / It's strange the way a shadow / Can fall across the wall . . ." The result is a very rich sound, that is very full and has a softer rock/pop feel to it, though the level of detail in her imagery is very strong, very tight and very complete.

As a result, Nine Objects Of Desire is not a simple album that simply sings of love and loss, like so many pop-rock albums. With lyrics entirely written by Suzanne Vega (three of the songs, she co-wrote the music for, though the rest she wrote the music and lyrics!), Nine Objects Of Desire is anything but simple. In fact, the album is insular and specific, packed with details as opposed to generic, bubbly and universal.

So, for example, Vega creates a beautiful and strong sense of place and stimulation of senses when she sings "It won't do / To dream of caramel, / To think of cinnamon / And long for you" ("Caramel"). Taste and scent are integral to memory and Vega presents hers, but she does it with such a sense of universality that the listener can empathize. That's strong writing. That may appear to be a contradiction, but it's not; I've no specific memories that tie longing to caramel and/or cinnamon, but when Vega sings about them in "Caramel." Like an actress perfectly expressing an emotion one has not experiences and getting an audience to empathize, Vega's performance of "Caramel" leaves the listener with a lingering sense of loneliness and longing that does not dissipate when the track ends.

Outside that, Vega uses strong visual imagery and ties it to emotions, as she ties stockings to desire on "Stockings." Vega certainly seems to know how to open songs with strong images as she presents with "I don't care for tights, she says / And she does not tell me why / She hikes her skirt above her knee / revealing one brown thigh . . ." ("Stockings"). If Britney Spears were singing with this much articulation, I might actually listen to her!

"Casual Match" sounds very much like a Fiona Apple song (I'm thinking "Fast As You Can" from "When The Pawn . . ."), though this album precedes her career. This may well be because Vega's vocal range is a pleasant alto that seems to have the ability to extend both into the higher and lower registers while maintaining a level of articulation that is wonderful and clear. No matter how Vega's musical accompaniment changes, her voice is always front and center, crisp and clear.

The sound of Suzanne Vega on Nine Objects Of Desire is all over the place, but in a very controlled way. The album sounds experimental, not sloppy. So, while it is ponderous and folk-like on the quiet "World Before Columbus," she is in full energetic pop-mode with "No Cheap Thrill" with guitars, clarinets, flutes, keyboards and drums. So, while the album is filled with essentially a whole orchestra of instruments, the tracks utilize instruments with a specificity that brilliantly creates the diverse sound that seems ultimately well constructed.

In fact, it is listening to "World Before Columbus" now that I come to my analogy. Suzanne Vega vocally sounds most like Shawn Colvin (Whole New You reviewed here!). Now that that is out of the way (hmm . . . "Lolita" on this album does remind me of Colvin's song "Mona Lisa" . . .) I think I have to use the disclaimer that if it took me so long and so many strong female artist's works to go through before I could figure it all out, I think this is a strong argument for the idea that Suzanne Vega is a true original.

And Nine Objects Of Desire is largely her vision of what music ought to be. She wrote most of it and while she does not receive a production credit, it seems unfathomable that she would be married to the producer (Mitchell Froom) if she did not like how he was assembling the album. She has a wonderful ear for combining instruments and this album contains her playing riff, acoustic and electric guitars on various tracks, so she certainly seems to know music.

The range, like the stories which range from sensory memories to admonitions ("Lolita") range from pop-rock with heavy guitars to piano-driven jazz instrumentals. This album will be enjoyed by anyone who likes a diverse listening experience that leans toward the pop-rock. This is a great album for anyone who likes strong, feminine voices. In fact, having listened to a lot of artists lately that I have not enjoyed, Vega is sticking out on this album as one that I have - despite my struggle for an analogous listening experience - thoroughly enjoyed.

Most of my genuine critique with Nine Objects Of Desire comes from the length of the album. I like to see an artist use the medium well and with less than thirty nine minutes worth of music, Vega could have made two albums and put them on one disc.

Also, some of the lyrics, despite the energetic, singsong way they are sung, make me cringe. On "No Cheap Thrill," Vega presents some of the all time most predictable rhymes with lines like ". . . don't be shy. / Who is that man who is catching my eye? / What's underneath all of the deadpan face? / Sitting so pretty with a criminal grace?" She continues with rhymes like Sea/me, pot/lot (that's where I wince), deal/feels, and stud/bud. I like the song, but it's more enjoying it in spite of itself as opposed to its lyrical strength.

Also, and this is admittedly completely petty, I'm lost with the title. The album is Nine Objects Of Desire and there are twelve songs. It's bugging me, seriously. The thing is, this is an above average album, but it's right on the cusp. I'm likely to pick up a copy for my permanent collection, but it's more of an average album than an extraordinary one. Regardless, it's better than anything I've heard lately from some of the other artists I've listened to and as it enters its tenth rotation on my player, I'm not sick of it and that ought to say something.

The best song is "Caramel" and I think the least good track on the album is "Honeymoon Suite" simply because it left so little of an impression on me.

For other albums by intriguing female artists, please visit my reviews of:
Susanna Hoffs - Susanna Hoffs
Wicked Little High - Bird York
Relish - Joan Osborn


See how this album stacks up against others I have reviewed (and read those reviews!) by visiting my Music Review Index Page where reviews are organized from best work to worst!

© 2013, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |

No comments:

Post a Comment