Like Patti Smith a decade earlier, Suzanne Vega was selected from an “underground” New York scene — in this case, the post-rock neo-folk crowd that outgrew new wave for acoustic guitars and sensitively poetic lyrics — and elevated to preeminent status with a major label record deal. Singing in a cool, wispy voice, Vega resembles a mix of Joni Mitchell, Laurie Anderson and Tim Buckley. Producers Lenny Kaye and Steve Addabbo assembled a number of studio players to support Vega in discreet, restrained fashion on her first album; the unobtrusive backing presents her songs clearly and pleasingly. With memorable material and little preciousness or obfuscation, Suzanne Vega introduces a talented melodicist with plenty of potential for development.
Whatever its other merits, Solitude Standing will always be known as the album containing the Top 5 hit single “Luka.” Vega’s offbeat first-person tale of a child- abuse victim is doubly disturbing, both for its chilling lyrics and her unclear motivation and intent. Captured with exquisitely clear sound, Vega’s subtle and inventive quartet provides texture, dynamics and context for the wan tales of urban alienation, preventing her unchanging voice — soft, dry, seductive — from unduly homogenizing the sound. (Three years after Solitude Standing‘s release, a British production group called DNA stuck an acid house rhythm track under the album’s a cappella “Tom’s Diner” and wound up moving Vega — unexpectedly but not, as it turned out, unhappily — into the charts and onto the world’s dancefloors. Despite her record’s unauthorized use, Vega proved to be a good sport and even wound up contributing to Tom’s Album, a 1991 collection entirely composed of covers and mixes of the song.)
The Compact Hits mini-compilation puts “Luka,” “Neighborhood Girls,” “The Queen and the Soldier” and “Left of Center” (a fine track done for the Pretty in Pink soundtrack but not on any Vega LP) on a British CD.
Days of Open Hand, produced with keyboard player Anton Sanko, moves Vega from the subtle folk-rock of her first two albums to an artier, somewhat glacial sound owing more to Leonard Cohen records of the 1980s. Using an ambitious instrumental mix that includes bouzouki, accordion, strings, sequencers and Fairlights, the songs also venture further afield. “Fifty-Fifty Chance” is an artfully simple and emotionally frank account of visiting a gravely ill loved one in the hospital; “Institution Green” turns voting into a harsh, almost unnatural act; “Tired of Sleeping” evokes Revolver-era John Lennon and “Men in a War” is probably the jauntiest song ever written about amputation. About the only element that mars an otherwise fine album is a stiff, airless insularity that occasionally makes Days of Open Hand sound like a graduate student’s term paper.
Moving forward from that flawed declaration of independence, 99.9F° is a confident statement from a mature artist. Working with producer Mitchell Froom (who subsequently became her husband), Vega sounds completely at ease in the studio. Many of the songs display a new interest in space and sound, using both in an almost sculptural fashion, creating a compelling amalgam that industrializes folk music. Clanging percussion, eerie effects and ghostly synthesizers jostle for position with more conventional guitars and drums. From the confrontational David and Goliath tale of “Rock in This Pocket” to the matter-of-fact “When Heroes Go Down,” Vega explores the shifting dynamics of power, paying special attention to the roles played by doctors and patients. A frightened patient’s skeptical response to questions in “Blood Makes Noise” (elsewhere, “Blood Sings”) leads to the quiescence of a low-grade fever in “99.9F°” (“It could be normal/But it isn’t quite”); the medical fantasy of “(If You Were) In My Movie” flips over into the terror of a girl being examined sexually in “Bad Wisdom.” For all of the anxiety and intimations of mortality, though, Vega still shows a playful side in the surreal “Fat Man and Dancing Girl” and the gender-bending “As Girls Go.”