Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Manhattan from the 29th Floor

It's been a while, quite a while, since I got excited about music or DVD releases on a fateful Tuesday. But this week yielded two that I've been waiting on for some time.

Panned and a box office dud, Factory Girl is reputed to be worth giving another chance, as a recent Times article explained. I'm saving it for a release from the torture of being trapped in a for conference a week and a half (aggggHHHH) starting Monday. Didn't I just do that in October? Yes, I did. Anyway, I hope it doesn't prove to be a complete bust.

The other much anticipated release was Suzanne Vega's Beauty and Crime. I've had more than one beau say, "If I have to hear that whining bitch one more time, I'm out of here." They've said worse about Mark Eitzel. Vega has never been on heavy rotation for an extended time in my Walkman, Discman or iPod, but she's provided an appropriate bookmark several times in my life. I vaguely liked her first two albums that yielded her two signature hits (to some people the only two songs she ever wrote). But it was her next two albums that stuck with me. And two songs -- "Institution Green" from 1990's Days of Open Hand and the title track from 1992's 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees seemed to be the signature songs for the time I lived off and on in Manhattan and Brooklyn (1989 - 1994), a time when the city was falling apart but it also felt that there was true political will emerging from the nightmare of a dozen years of Reagan/Bush. The best and worst of times, I think it's been called. How often, as I passed vacant, desperate eyes, I wanted to blurt out that lyric "you...seem to a man on the verge...of burning....99.9...Fahrenheit degrees..."

The third song of hers that served as a signature, though never as strongly as those two, was "Caramel" from 1996's Nine Objects of Desire that heralded my move to California. Appropriately it had a pretty and jazzy bossa nova veneer that belied something sinister lurking beneath. How fitting that it was used to promote the very smooth and sinister Closer.

Her 2001 Songs in Red and Gray was praised by some as a return to her folky roots. But it was a bit too musky, moldy and depressing even for me. Coming at the time of a break up (both hers and mine) and having the ill-fated timing of being released the Labor Day just before 9/11, it has rarely had repeated playing on my system. I gravitated to Bjork's cozy Vespertine, released the same week.

I appreciate Beauty and Crime on many levels. As Vega has said, she doesn't see Manhattan as just the polished, glistening wonderland of Giuliani, Bloomberg and Sex and the City. Some of that is because she was there before, but also because as a native she still sees more than the veneer. And the album exudes that on several levels and pulls from many points in her career. "The Pornographer's Dream" feels like a book end to "Caramel". "Edith Wharton's Figurines" is a piece of classical chamber pop that feels the lingering ghosts of an era even before Vega's day. And, there are plenty of 9/11 references. Some reviewers have blasted her for doing what's been done better before. I'd argue that she brings a bit more perspective and reflection that make the memories stronger, reminding us that the wound is not gaping but is still raw.

I appreciate that there are so many references to the past -- ours and Vega's own -- but unlike the girl in "Luka" she's now (as stated in "Manhattan Is a Woman") up on the 29th not second floor, looking down on Manhattan for perhaps a broader view. As usual, Vega is both jaded and vulnerable, weary but driven by a voracious appetite for all that the city has to offer.

I suspect I'll be listening to the disc for a few more weeks, but like most Vega releases, it won't be in heavy permanent rotation. Perhaps equal to that of Days of Open Hand.

And, yes, it sounds like I still live or want to live in Manhattan. We'll work on that in another post.

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At 7:11 AM, Blogger marxsny said...

I have always been Suzanne Vega fan, I still have her 1st 2 records on vinyl and "Marlene On The Wall" is one of my alltime favorite songs. My mother bought me the new CD for my birthday from my list. I haven't received it yet as it was just released this week but I'm really looking forward to hearing it. She is one of those musicians who I would buy anything she puts out there.

At 9:10 AM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

I think you will like it since it pulls on so many of her styles through the years and really embodies the spirit of the city -- then and now.

Based on our mutual posts and comments on other performers, I think that someone could swap our iPods and it would take us a couple of days before we noticed the difference.


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