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[whitespace] Suzanne Vega Old Folk: Suzanne Vega sings of divorce and widows.

Melancholy Mistress

Suzanne Vega reaches new levels of solemnity

By Gina Arnold

ANYONE WHO'S EVER spent any time up at Columbia University in New York City is probably familiar with a restaurant on the corner of 113th and Broadway called Tom's Diner.

They make a mean Reuben and a great milkshake, but--perhaps more importantly--Tom's was the model for the diner that Jerry and his pals frequented in "Seinfeld," as well as the subject of a song by Suzanne Vega. It's hard to eat there without humming the infectious opening chords of that hit, and for me, it's now equally hard to hear Vega's voice without conjuring up the taste of corned beef and rye.

Vega's voice conjures up New York City itself: the brownstones on Riverside Drive, the fall colors in Central Park, arty girls in long skirts rushing to class at NYU, the New School, Barnard and Hunter. This fall, that's kind of a heartbreaking sound, but it's one that Vega's music suits perfectly.

Her voice is one of the more recognizable female instruments of the '80s. She has only had two huge hits, "Tom's Diner" and "Luka" (both from 1987's Solitude Standing), but both had an immense impact (the number of kids under 10 named Luka, for example, skyrocketed.)

Vega's three LPs produced in the '90s haven't been quite as popular, but her latest (the first in five years), Songs in Red and Grey (A&M), may see her resurgence in the cultural conscience. Its subject, ostensibly, is a failed marriage (her own, to producer Mitch Froom) but her metaphors of sadness, loss and renunciation are quite resonant right now. "Last year's troubles they shine up so prettily," she sings, "they gleam with a luster they don't have today / here it's just dirty and violent and troubling."

Vega grew up on the Upper West Side, near Tom's Diner, and attended Barnard. Indeed, she has become the quintessential Barnard-girl archetype: frail, thin, cool, quiet, sensitive, intense; the kind of girl who never raised her hand in class, but secretly knew all the answers and hugged them to her breast. Maybe it's my imagination, but that part of New York City colors her work. Songs in Red and Grey seems mistitled. Why not songs in autumn colors--rust and auburn--that are the colors of New York in the fall?

If Songs in Red and Grey has a flaw, it is that this sound--nearly acoustic, hushed girly folk-rock sound--is so old-fashioned; so frankly beatless. The trip-hop singer Dido has replaced Vega in the minds of many as the depressed-female voice of the decade. That artist is cooler, younger; just as lovelorn, but much more musically modern.

Vega herself isn't unaware of the uses of rhythm: "Tom's Diner" created an indelible sample that's been used on many a track since--but there's nothing like that here. If possible, it is a more somber Suzanne who is singing here--and singing about herself. "Once I stood alone so proud / held myself above the ground now I am low on the ground," are the first words of the album. And it ends with a prayer: "Call on the saint / when the white candle burns / keeping her safe, until her return."

In many ways, Suzanne Vega is an acquired taste. Her voice, chilly and quiet and low, is distinctive, and her musical palette of instruments somewhat conservative: what she plays is classic rock before its time. But the main point about her that either charms or repels listeners is her solemnity. There's no humor anywhere in her music, voice, lyrics or general makeup. That can be annoying in the normal run of things--the single most off-putting aspect of what one might term "Lilith Fair rock"--but at this single instant in time it isn't necessarily inappropriate.

The most eerie song on the album is "If I Were a Weapon," in which Vega compares herself to a hostage, singing "I've concealed a weapon in a pocket knife attack." Obviously Vega didn't mean to write an album about violence and its aftermath, but the timing is right to hear it now. Songs In Red and Grey is a soothing LP to listen to, but it is not, for all that, a reassuring one.

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From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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