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Suzanne Vega: Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers
by George Graham
(Amanuensis Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/9/2016)
It has been about 30 years since folk singer-songwriters were put back on the map for general audiences though the hits of Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega in the latter 1980s. While Ms. Chapman’s output has been relatively sparse, Ms. Vega has been keeping active in recent years. Her latest project, her ninth, is called Lover Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers.
A Southern California native, Ms. Vega grew up in New York City, where she attended the High School for the Performing Arts and studied dance. While at college, she became part of the Greenwich Village folk scene, performing at Jack Hardy’s famous songwriter’s get-togethers with people like , John Gorka and others. She won a major label contract in 1984 and released her eponymous debut album the following year, which won critical praise. Her followup album, Solitude Standing, did extraordinarily well, thanks to her hit songs Luka and Tom’s Diner, which became a hit from sampled and remixed versions. She has been releasing a fairly steady stream of recordings with various stylistic directions.
Ms. Vega describes Lover Beloved as an album unlike any she has done before. It’s based on a play that she wrote several years ago, but this is a new version, in terms of compositions, with most of it was co-written by Duncan Sheik, another talented singer-songwriter who has written for the theater. The result is an interesting and entertaining recording with some great songs, that is also likely to engender an interest in the literary works of Carson McCullers, who was known for her short stories, a novel, and was a playwright and essayist. McCullers came to be known as part of the “Southern Gothic” style. The album’s songs revolve around some of McCullers’ characters and her own life, as imagined by Ms. Vega and Sheik.
The backing musicians include producer Gerry Leonard, who is heard on a variety of string instruments, plus Jason Hart on piano, Yuvall Lyon on drums and Byron Isaacs on bass. Also appearing on a couple of tracks is veteran jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd. The styles run from a kind of old-fashioned theatrical approach to more conventionally folky material. It’s all well done, with Ms Vega’s distinctive vocals in excellent form.
Leading off the succinct 33-minute album is Carson’s Blues one those tracks that sounds like an old-fashioned novelty song, with a prominent accordion. Lyrically, it’s kind of supposed self-portrait of the author Carson McCullers about whom the album revolves. <<>>
The following song, New York Is My Destination, is the story of a young author determined to take New York by storm. The song is an attractive waltz. <<>>
More contemplative is a piece called Instant of the Hour After, presumably about a bittersweet affair. It’s a song that’s perfect for Ms. Vega’s voice. <<>>
Another fascinating composition revolving around a character is Annemarie, a pretty song seemingly about the private tribulations of a popular person. <<>>
Another track that is something of novelty song is Harper Lee, showing a little professional jealousy among authors, with the McCullers musical character carping that her literary contemporaries were enjoying a lot more recognition and popularity. Roswell Rudd’s trombone is prominent. <<>>
The title track Lover, Beloved is an interesting love song with conflicting emotions. It’s one of the album’s highlights. <<>>
Another amusing set of lyrics can be heard on The Ballad of Miss Amelia. Lyrically it’s another complicated affair. <<>>
The album ends with a piece called Carson’s Last supper, which also has the kind of old novelty song sound, and is itself a kind of musical toast. <<>>
Suzanne Vega describes her new album Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers as different from all her previous recordings. It is in concept and the fact that the songs are based on a theatrical presentation. The compositions are almost all co-writes with Duncan Sheik, which also sets it apart from the very personal solo work that marked Ms. Vega’s familiar output. But in terms of its sound, it’s something that Ms. Vega’s many fans will welcome as comfortably familiar, in a way going back to her first couple of albums. There is none of the electronic or alternative material that marked some of her middle period albums. The execution is very tasteful and Gerry Leonard’s production is spot-on, with the arrangements nicely capturing the mood of the songs’ lyrics. And vocally Ms. Vega is in top form.
Our grade for sound quality is a “B plus” Ms. Vega’s vocals are well-treated, without unnecessary effects. But as is so frequently the case, the overall sound is cranked up artificially with volume compression to taking a subtle and nuanced performance and making it sound right in-your-face.
For those of a certain age, it’s hard to imagine, but it has been over 30 years since Suzanne Vega’s eponymous and influential debut album which, with its successor Solitude Standing, helped to usher in a new generation of popular singer songwriters. Ms. Vega is still very much at it, and her new project marks a change in lyrical concept, but no diminution of musical quality.
(c) Copyright 2016 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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