An album telling tales of NYC past and present from long time resident Suzanne Vega immediately brought to mind thoughts of ’neighbour’ Lou Reed’s marvelously gritty New York album of many moons ago (thoroughly recommended by the way). Attendance at a Lou Reed concert was the catalyst that first got Vega performing over twenty years ago, and the opening riff of Zephyr & I (NY’s version of Banksy apparently) sounds like a lift from his Vicious. Despite, or because of, this, it’s a good start. Unfortunately, there is less of the same to follow. Only the similarly semi-rocking (and similarly KT Tunstall backed) Frank & Ava (Sinatra & Gardner) and the looped techno back-beats of Unbound keep the attention. These are all very nice AOR tracks, but nice is never quite enough is it?
It’s payback time for the woman who is credited as having inspired Dido to start singing. For the majority of this collection her voice sinks anonymously into the rich surroundings of lush string arrangements and perfect, too perfect, busy muscianship. At it’s best her voice is exposed and haunting – remember the a capella Tom’s Diner – it’s overpowered here. Even lyrics that could prick the ears like those of Pornographers’s Dream drift off under a lounge singer accompanyment. Maybe there’s some deliberate contradiction at work there, but it didn’t work for me. Elsewhere, we hear “Love is the only thing that’s real” platitudes (Ludlow Street). Of course, she’s literate, she’s intelligent, but she’s also comfortable. And so is this album. Those who are already fans will like it, but it won’t win new converts – me included. It’s what I expected even after not hearing her since the early 90’s. Polished, professional, pleasant, but leaving me largely unengaged. Even the NY pub performance video on her MySpace page of Frank & Ava sees Vega strangely apathetic.
I take enough stick about my long time loves for Eddi Reader and Maria McKee to be worried about failing the ’cool test’ by any display of praise here. Three tracks I like for sure, a couple more would make the cut onto my mp3 player. With this female trio all having had past widespread success that will continue to keep the wolf from the door, and all being of a certain age, my personal favourites (apart from the advantage of having two of the greatest female voices known to mankind) still continue to show more innovation and variety. Vega still deserves respect for breaking down barriers for female singer / songwriters in the 80’s, but she can afford to take more risks. As the final offering Anniversary states, Manhattan has changed: “Clean up every corner, wash down every street”. That diner has been gutted and reopened as the gentrified Central Perk. These days tales from Manhattan are just not as interesting. I’m left with that slightly empty feeling of revisiting somewhere where you once had a memorable experience and regretting that you ever returned to spoil the memory.