Suzanne Vega – Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

3 02 2014

Suzanne Vega - Tales from the Realm of the Queen of PentaclesTales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is the first album of new material from Suzanne Vega since 2007’s Beauty & Crime. Following on from Suzanne’s reclaiming of her back-catalogue, with the Close Up series, this is the longest gap between new albums.

The album was produced by long-time David Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard, who looms large on the album, adding most of the albums electric guitar and more than a hint of the alt-rock experimentation of Bowie’s excellent The Next Day from last year.

King Crimson/ Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin is joined by recent Bowie band-members Sterling Campbell, Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford to underpin a lot of the songs on Tales from the Realm…

Album opener Crack in the Wall is not a hybrid of two key tracks from Suzanne’s debut album but a delightful new track, with mandolin underpinned acoustic guitars, and a real live feel. It’s almost a statement opener – this is the sort of sound you would expect from a Suzanne Vega record in 2014. The surprises slowly start to seep through on the album’s second song, Fool’s Complaint, with a very early 70s sound (the backing vocals remind me of Transformer era Lou Reed).

Then along comes I Never Wear White – and this is the point where the album really shifts to new sonic territory. Built on a Stonesey riff, and a very in your face rock sound – just raw guitar, bass (from Levin) and drums (guitar/bass/drums – the killer formula). This is unlike anything else in the Vega back catalogue. Not a keyboard or acoustic guitar in earshot on this track.

“My colour is black, black, black…”

Portrait of the Knight of Wands is my favourite song on the album. Delicate layered guitar and discordant keyboards provide the palette for this moving tale. A subtle reverb on the lead vocal and a wide mix give this song space to breathe.

“His mission, the transmission of technology”

Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain features a 50 Cent sample, the sampled becoming the sampler! A shifting arrangement throws in some Zeppelinesque, arabic-sounding string parts, and a very unique vocal phrasing. This track cries out to be a single.

Jacob and the Angel really benefits from the Gerry Leonard production, with a guitar riff bubbling under the song that Mr Bowie would be proud of. Hand-claps provide the nagging beat, as the song slowly builds as it progresses.

The musically nostalgic Silver Bridge (which reminds me a little of the late 70s new wave of The Cars mixed with Springsteen’s sublime I’m on Fire) is another standout track that reveals hidden textures on repeated listening.

Song of the Stoic is a powerhouse of a song, and for me, the album’s centrepiece. Referencing the production experimentation of 99.9F° (my favourite Suzanne Vega album), the early instrumentation sounds like 19th Century, Deadwood era America, with rustic guitar and percussion that evokes the clanking of early industrial machinery. An intensely moving vocal line and cinematic arrangement make this one of the best songs Suzanne has ever recorded. I’m never going to grow tired of listening to this track.

Laying on of Hands / Stoic 2 has a wonderful dirty Velvet Underground sounding guitar line, and a very percussive backbeat. The album finishes with the optimistic Horizon (There Is a Road), offsetting the darkness of some of the albums preceding tracks.

Releasing a folk sounding record would have been a safe and unimaginative option but thankfully, Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is a million miles away from being safe, and should prove to be a career highlight for Suzanne Vega fans.

Visit the Suzanne Vega website

Buy Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles on Amazon UK

Buy Tried & True: The Best Of Suzanne Vega on Amazon UK

Buy 99.9 F° on Amazon UK

Slow Electric

29 10 2011

Slow ElectricSlow Electric is a new collaboration between Tim Bowness (no-man), Peter Chilvers (Bowness/ChilversBrian Eno) and the Estonian group UMA (Aleksei Saks and Robert Jürjendal).  The album features Tony Levin (King Crimson / Peter Gabriel) on two tracks.

This album came together when the four musicians played at a festival in Estonia in late 2010. The basis of this album comes from live recordings of the 2010 shows, with re-recorded vocals and added keyboards, plus the contributions from Tony Levin on Towards the Shore & Days Turn into Years.

Towards The Shore / Towards an Ending is a strong opener. Towards The Shore dates back to a previous Bowness band, Plenty and was written in 1986. The 2011 version is beatless and driven by stately piano, atmospheric trumpet and scratched, percussive guitar playing, over the reflective Bowness vocal:

“Too frightened of your feelings
Too frightened of the light
You stripped away the meanings
gave in without a fight… You never moved away”

Listen to the video edit of Towards The Shore below:

iPhone / iPad version

Criminal Caught In The Crime was originally written to be part of the follow-up to the Bowness/Chilvers California, Norfolk album.  One of the few tracks driven by any sort of percussion, the glitchy beats contrast the smooth electronics of the song, and the vocal is bookended by atypical Bowness backing vocals.

Days Turn Into Years was one of the standout tracks on the 2002 Bowness/Chilvers album California, Norfolk.  This version by Slow Electric is the definitive take on the song. The bedsit drama is given a much more elegant treatment that matches the sadness and decay of the lyrics.  At times, sounding like something from David Sylvian‘s Secrets of the Beehive before veering off into a more freeform structure, with vocal loops cascading over the beats, Days Turn Into Years is the highlight of the album for me, and a wonderful reinvention of one of my favourite songs of the past 10 years.

Slow Electric

Slow Electric Hum / Also Out Of Air moves from it’s ethereal instrumental opening into a This Mortal Coil referencing song, with rich, reverb heavy keys, and haunting, heavily treated trumpet.

Another Winter will be known to no-man fans as the first part of truenorth from their 2008 schoolyard ghosts album. It works well as part of this album, and features some lovely trumpet in the second part of the song that reminds me of the emotive playing of Jon Hassell on Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees.

Listen to Warm Winter below:

iPhone / iPad version

Between The Silent Worlds ends the album on a very ambient note.  No piano or beats on this track, just layers of textured guitar and looped trumpet. Evoking snow-covered landscapes, the aching atmospherics suit the reflective lyrics.

“Words become notes become words.”

As proof that the best music is not always instant, on first hearing the album several months ago, I thought this track was the weakest on the album. Several months later, and it has become one of the albums highlights, and is a perfect closer. One of those wonderful late-night soundtracks that when it hits you, hits you hard.

I hope this album from Slow Electric is not a one-off release, and I would like to hear an album of completely new songs written specifically for this project, as there are plenty of possible routes for the musicians to take.

This set of 21st century torch-songs is perfectly suited to soundtrack the change in seasons as the winter nights draw in, and should appeal to fans of David Sylvian, Robert Fripp, as well as those who are moved by the songs of Bowness/Chilvers & no-man.

Watch the Towards The Shore video below:

Video filmed, Edited and Directed by Dion Johnson

Towards The Shore / Towards An Ending (7.23)
Criminal Caught In The Crime (7.43)
Days Turn Into Years (9.35)
Slow Electric Hum / Also Out Of Air (5.24)
Another Winter (5.04)
Between The Silent Worlds (6.37)

Buy Slow Electric from The Burning Shed
Buy Slow Electric at Amazon UK
Buy Slow Electric at Amazon US

Slow Electric website

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