Suzanne Vega - Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (Review)
Review by Jack Foley
SUZANNE Vega’s first album of new material in seven years may sound like she’s come over all experimental but, in many ways, it’s the sound of an artist doing what she does best.
There’s a folk pop sensibility underpinning most of the songs, as well as elements of classic rock. Each song tells a story that has to do with the material world and the world of the spirit and how they intersect.
It also taps into Vega’s broad range of musical tastes, intertwining Dylan/Stones inspired guitar-driven songs with lush orchestral strings and trumpet, as well as soul-packed background vocals. There’s even a dash of hip hop (of which Vega is a self-confessed fan) when she samples the 50 Cent hit song Candy Shop for one of the more unique tracks on the album, Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain.
It’s perhaps a knowingly ironic move given how many times her iconic song Tom’s Diner has been sampled or interpolated within the hip-hop community.
The production elements are equally notable too. Produced by Gerry Leonard, David Bowie’s musical director for over a decade, the album features Suzanne’s longtime bass player Mike Visceglia and drummer Doug Yowell.
But for the first time on a studio recording, Suzanne has also assembled an illustrious group of musicians to accompany her including Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford (David Bowie) on bass and drums for several tracks (Suzanne and Zachary attended the same elementary school back in the 70’s in New York City); bass player Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel) on the rhythm-heavy I Never Wear White and Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain; drummer Jay Bellerose (T-Bone Burnett’s main go-to drummer); acoustic ‘wizard’ Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan) who plays banjo, mandolin and cymbal throughout the album; Sterling Campbell (David Bowie, B52s) on drums for Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain and Laying on of Hands; and Alison Balsom, the virtuoso principal trumpet for the London Chamber Orchestra who is featured on There Is A Road (Horizon) for Vaclav Havel.
Admittedly, the opening track Crack In The Wall, doesn’t even come close to hinting at the wealth of talent and diversity on show, emerging as the sort of folk pop song that a Laura Marling or a Katie Melua or even a Vega in her heyday would be content to call their own.
But then comes the Dylan-meets-Stone rock vibe on Fool’s Complaint, which offers up a robust toe-tapper, which gets ever grittier on the hard-rocking I Never Wear White, which proclaims defiantly (even provocatively) “white is for virgins, children who suffer, rides in the park”. Her colour is black and this dark rocker showcases why.
A couple of tracks later, there’s willful playfulness in abundance on Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain, which drops that 50 Cent sample, as well as another robust folk-rock sound that collides magnificently with those Eastern string arrangements and a happy-go-lucky melodicism.
Jacob The Angel is alive with hand-clap back-beats, urgent guitar licks and Biblical undertones, Silver Bridge has the sort of classic folk-rock vibe that Fleetwood Mac would be proud of as well as one of the dreamiest vocals on the LP, and Song Of The Stoic has the sort of edgy mix of banjo rock and percussion elements that have helped Mumford & Sons to emerge as one of the biggest folk acts of the moment. It’s a terrific track, embellished by some heart-melting harmonies from Vega herself.
Final tracks Laying on of Hands, which references Mother Teresa amid more lively banjo and guitar licks, and There Is A Road (Horizon) for Vaclav Havel, which exists on an almost spiritual plain complete with a fantastic horn solo, ensure that the high quality is maintained to the end.
Put together, this is a truly excellent return from the New York singer-songwriter that should earn her one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of her illustrious career, making her vital (and maybe even ripe for sampling) all over again.
Download picks: Fool’s Complaint, Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain, I Never Wear White, Silver Bridge, Song Of The Stoic, There Is A Road (Horizon) for Vaclav Havel