Wednesday, May 15, 2013

With Two Great And More Mediocre Tracks, I'm Not Alone In Finding Solitude Standing Average

The Good: "Tom's Diner" and "Luka" are amazing, Good lyrics
The Bad: Musically limited, Overall album does not leave as much of an impression on the listener
The Basics: Despite two (or three) amazing tracks, Solitude Standing is a remarkably average breakout album for Suzanne Vega.

I have a thing for ambitious debut albums. There are artists who come out of the gate with an impressive and daunting level of quality to their musical work that makes the listener immediately sit up and say "wow!" In fact, Fiona Apple's debut Tidal (reviewed here!) and the Jubilant Dog's album Abby are the only two debuts that come right to mind as impressive debuts where the artist had to work real hard to top with their second album. Far more common is the trend where an artist releases a stiflingly average debut and their sophomore album picks up and the artist grows over several albums. Solitude Standing is not Suzanne Vega's debut album, but it's her breakout album in the United States.

With eleven tracks, clocking in at a little over forty-four minutes, Solitude Standing is the Suzanne Vega album that introduced her to mainstream U.S. markets with her songs "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" (though, the remix by DNA that followed three years later had greater commercial success) and it remains her most successful album in her repertoire. I'm no expert on Vega; this is only the second album I've heard of hers. And despite my lukewarm review of Nine Objects of Desire (reviewed here!), I definitely enjoyed that album more than Solitude Standing.

Solitude Standing is definitely sold on its strengths. "Luka" and "Tom's Diner" are definitely the best tracks on the album and they appear as tracks two and one, respectively. In fact, "Tom's Diner" is presented at the climax of the album as an all musical reprise. So, there is an a cappella version of the song that opens the album and an all instrumental version that closes it. It's not until the DNA remix (not on this album!) when the two are put together.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Suzanne Vega, she hit it big in 1987 with "Luka," a simple singsong rock and roll song about child abuse. It's a well written, clever song that list a number of the symptoms of abuse and makes it into an anthem for those who suffer child abuse. Moreover, the song is accompanies by a wonderful sense of sound, the rock drums that accent the lines "Just don't ask me what it was. . ." ("Luka") create a distinctive punch to the song. Sadly, when it's been a long time since I've heard the song, I always find myself smirking to Vega's line "Yes I think I'm okay / I walked into the door again . . ." ("Luka"). Part of it is Vega's melodic voice as she presents the line, harmonizing perfectly with her acoustic guitar.

It's easy to see why "Luka" was a hit, being so different from anything else on the radio in 1987. Similarly, it's easy to see why "Tom's Diner" did not climb higher when it was released; it's so different as to boggle the pop-culture framework. That framework is that different is good, as long as it's a different the listener knows and recognizes. "Luka" has guitars, drums and sounds like a pop-rock song, regardless of the lyrics. "Tom's Diner" is a simple story poem about a woman sitting and having a cup of coffee on a rainy day in New York without any accompaniment. And while Vega's alto voice is an instrument of its own, the song is so strange and different that it falls outside the box.

Similarly, it's easy to see why there was no successful third single from Solitude Standing. I mean, it does not matter how much like a typical pop-rock sound your song is when you're singing about buying chicken ("Ironbound/Fancy Poultry"), Greek mythology ("Calypso") or the nature of reality ("Language"). This is not to say the songs are bad, only that they are so far outside the mainstream as to be hard to capture the popular culture's imagination.

That said, the superlative aspects of Solitude Standing are the lyrics and Vega's voice. One of the problems with the album is how the two interact. Suzanne Vega has a lovely alto voice that ventures into soprano territory on some of the songs, like "Calypso." She has a haunting affect that is carried on her voice like a bird on the wind. She is brilliantly sensual with her voice . . . most of the time.

The problem with the album (and track) Solitude Standing is there is a tendency for Vega's lilting voice to mix with lyrics that are rather predictably rhymed to make the affect unbelievably light. So, for example, on the song Solitude Standing, Vega sings "Solitude stands by the window / She turns her head as I walk in the room / I can see by her eyes she's been waiting/Standing in the slant of the late afternoon," with a tune and music that accompanies the lines that leaps up and down the registers in a way that is best described as a singsong style. This minimizes the lyrics. In this example, "room" and "afternoon" are not the most overdone rhymes, so the music and vocals create a simplicity that is not indicated by the actual lyrics.

Moreover, Vega's vocals are wonderful, when they can be heard. On songs like "Wooden Horse (Caspar Hauser's Song)," her singing is so quiet that the drums, keyboards and guitars overbear much of the early lines. Moreover, so much of the album is slow and sad that the overall effect of the work is somewhat like musical sleepwalking. There's a narcoleptic effect that occurs when one listens to this album repeatedly. The music, the obscured lyrics, the voice, is all good, but the net result is more tiring than inspiring. After the second song, there is nothing that truly rocks on this album, meaning the album sinks some into a sleepy, foggy place that becomes more tiring and sleepy in its pop-rock sound.

Backed by synthesizers, guitars, and drums on most of the songs, Solitude Standing lacks anything as distinctive as the first two (popular) tracks, making it a very repetitive sound for the bulk of the album. In keeping with the standards I set down in my review of Melissa Etheridge's album Yes I Am (reviewed here!), it becomes difficult to recommend this otherwise average album as the best tracks do appear on Vega's Retrospective album.

The best tracks are "Luka" and "Tom's Diner," the low of the slow middle is "Night Vision."

For other independent female artists, please check out my reviews of:
A Few Small Repairs - Shawn Colvin
Hotel Paper - Michelle Branch
The Dresden Dolls - The Dresden Dolls


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

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