Music Features

Tracking Force - 2

Solitude Standing - Suzanne Vega

If you were sentient in 1987, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting poor Luka. Maybe that’s an inappropriate metaphor for a song about child abuse. Still, that goddamn song was everywhere. But with the benefit of elapsed time I’m finally able to hear it afresh after all these years on this delightful album that packs a sonic wallop - oh boy, there I go again. The first thing that hits you (stop it!) after dropping the needle in the groove is the presence of Vega’s voice on the a cappella Tom’s Diner. A good test of your vinyl rig, she should sound like she’s right there in the room singing just to you. It’s a bold stroke for an album opener and revealed a mature but still young artist in control of her environment. Lenny Kaye and manager Steve Addabbo capably produce this set of smooth, folksy pop songs that can’t help sounding like a cliché after a glut of 90’s female artists followed her lead. But Vega was the first in this mold to emerge in the eighties and her laid back, thoughtful tunes were a stark contrast to the prevalent pop of the day, so dominated by Madonna, Prince and Springsteen in full throated bombast mode. I’m no fan of the sound of most records in this decade, but well-engineered albums were still being produced, and this is a fine example. I’m not sure but it sounds like an analog recording, as it has a sparkle that digital has to work hard to achieve. A good analog recording with a strong female vocalist is almost always an audiophile’s dream combo, and this is no exception.

The United States of America – The United States of America

When historians of popular music tell us that Sgt Pepper made all things possible, this is what they are talking about. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a record with pretensions to radio airplay being made prior to the summer of 1967 which included such wild and freeform experimentation. The spirit of Charles Ives, not a name ever really popular even in the classical music halls, hangs over this record. As in Three Places in New England, a marching band intrudes upon a piece of music already in progress, as if the group set up shop in the village green just as the parade was going by. This is what Ives hoped to convey, but it seems likely that Joseph Byrd, the USA’s master of ceremonies, was doing it simply because he could, such was the tenor of the times. This is still a pop record, with glorious confections like The Garden of Earthly Delights and Stranded in Time. The latter is anchored by the mysterious and oddly compelling voice of Dorothy Moskowitz, whose time near the spotlight was so short-lived she didn’t even bother to acquire a stage name. While always on the lookout for an original copy, poor sales upon release has made that a so far fruitless search, so I’ve had to make do with the Sundazed reissue from 2008. They did a fine job with it, printed on the original Columbia 2 eye label on suitably thick and quiet vinyl. It sounds pretty darn good as well. The instrumentation is sparse enough that each player gets a distinct spot on the soundstage, and a real sense of the studio space is imparted. For modern ears the production limitations of the day, with 4 or at most 8 tracks available, can serve as a barrier to entry, with instruments panned hard right and left, vocals, if you’re lucky, alone in the middle, and huge gaps in between. It’s one reason the mono mixes of the period are often preferred. This one is no exception, but it’s worth getting used to, and there’s plenty of early “fun with stereo” effects to charm the listener based on naïve enthusiasm. Most importantly, despite some indulgent lapses, the songs are mostly weird and wonderful and cast an unusual spell that I’ve never been able to shake. And for that I’m forever grateful.