Songs in Red and Gray: Song by Song

songs in red and gray cover

Songs in Red and Gray (2001)

1. Penitent

There was an interesting choice in how to approach this song. On the one hand, one could present the song as in a sparse, almost bleak, arrangement. Many of the images are so stark and raw when they sit on the page, that one might think one had stumbled into a Leonard Cohen album.

On the other hand the decision was made to “open up” the song with the addition of the piano (for example at 0:38 in the song) and the appearance of the strings (at 1:02). These instruments add drama to the song – note the way they underscore the words at 1:20 of the song – but it is certainly a decision that reflects the dichotomy lying at the heart of this collection of songs: the contrast between a sparser acoustic album and a mainstream pop production. For example, the feel at 1:34 (“your voice/the word”) is the one point at which the production verges on a kind of muzak “pop” sound (the way the strings hit those high notes). Fortunately, the moment comes and passes quickly and does not unduly distract.

Overall, this particular version of the song does an exemplary job of highlighting the melodic strengths of the song. Taken undiluted, “Penitent” words are in some ways too naked and direct for the taste of many people, especially non Suzanne Vega fanatics. Rather, it is as if Hine had taken “Penitent” and done a remix. If one liked what DNA did to “Rosemary,” then you will like this version of “Penitent.”

2. Widow’s Walk

Like “Penitent,” “Widow’s Walk” is a song that if one wanted to, could be presented in an utterly stark and bleak style. Taken straight up, the words hit so close to the bone that one appreciate the distance the production places between the song and the narrator.

The song starts out with the propulsive guitar and synth riff. Gerry Leonard’s dramatic bass notes on the acoustic is especially effective. The acoustic guitar notes (such as at 0:24) are reminiscent of the accents John Leventhal adds to Shawn Colvin’s music – a spectral and ghostly image

Indeed, the is a sense was that this version of “Widow’s Walk” is a cousin to Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home,” a pop version of a stark song presented in a polished and more accessible manner for public consumption.

An interesting question is whether the strings (such as at 2:14) add much to this song. To my ears they add less than they did in “Penitent;” the parts of the song that I connect with most are Leonard’s above-mentioned acoustic guitar work, what sounds like a synth version of a vibraphone (such as at 1:08), and the catchiness of the chorus. (As an aside, who but Suzanne Vega could make a catchy hook out of such an improbable line as “But save ourselves when all omens point to fail.” On paper it doesn’t look like it would work at all, but it does.)

3. (I’ll Never Be) Your Maggie May

I confess that I was not so partial to this song when first performed solo. It was o.k., but for some reason it seemed routine. This version, however, I absolutely love.

The reason is that I am drawn to the production style of the early to mid-seventies Nashville style, a style heard on a million pop/country albums from people as diverse as John Denver (on a song like (“Take Me Home) Country Road”), Gordon Lightfoot (“If You Could Read My Mind”), Emmylou Harris, and even Bob Dylan (on “Nashville Skyline.”) It was light pop, but well-made pop.

That sound usually featured the muffled snare drum sound that is prominent on “Maggie May.” Drummers like Kenny Buttrey were renowned for their clean styles, and this is what I hear on this recording. Listen for the wonderful way the drummer, Jay Bellerose, makes a subtle double-time/shuffle beat at 0:53 or 3:07 – wonderful. The mandolin, zither, and dulcimer sounds are also uncannily effective, adding a charm, crispness, and lightness.

Mike Visceglia’s bass work is also notable for the way it sails through the upper notes. In this song, the bass plays a beautiful and expressive melodic line (such as at a passage such as that starting at 1:07).

Also noteworthy is the wordless chorus line at 1:37 where Suzanne hums the melody line and echoes herself. This may not seem like much, but it is a relative rarity in her music. To add to the effect she also echoes herself throughout – again, a common pop hook employed on the best of the “Nashville sound” recordings.

This is the first song where the strings work perfectly, adding a ‘70s pop sheen to the production. Note how they underscore a passage such as at 2:25. As the recording closes out at starting at 3:18, all the elements are there: the accent of the dulcimer, the lush strings, the muffled snare, and Mike Visceglia’s expressive bass line.

“Maggie May” exemplifies what is most positive about this collection: there are a great number of songs that take pleasure simply from their own skilfulness, playfulness, and musicality. They seek not to change the world; there is no great message of import. Rather, they are simply great to listen to on their own terms.

4. It Makes Me Wonder

If one values a consistent sound or concept behind an album, the juxtaposition of “It Makes Me Wonder” and “Maggie May” is likely to annoy you. “Songs in Red in Gray” is not a “concept” album nor does it possess a consistent sound. It seems to me that this is a collection of 13 very different songs, each made in a way that sounded best for that song and without any real concern for whether the total collection had an overarching style. If one values such consistency, then “Songs in Red and Gray” will disappoint. It is not something that I care much about, and so the strong ‘90s sound on this cut, right after a 70’s Nashville-sound cut, I find interesting and amusing.

I listened many times to this recording, and “Machine Ballerina,” to figure out just what it was that sounded so familiar. To my ears these recordings have the sound and feel of some long-lost early ‘80s Paul McCartney recording, specifically, the production of McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” recording, produced by McCartney with Elvis Costello.

In particular, the way Suzanne delivers a line like “I have to say it makes me wonder” (such as at 0:48), has the hallmarks of McCartney’s style (the slight echo, how she emphasizes “say” and how she delivers the words “…that you are under” or “cool as an angel’s kiss.”) McCartney was fond of using word combinations such as “that you are under” in this way: the effect of the phrase is to create a slight run-on effect, as if the beat must hurry-up to catch up with the words.

It is not particularly fashionable to like Paul McCartney these days, as he is generally regarded as a lightweight lyricist of mainstream pop. But when one can combine Suzanne’s Vega’s skillfulness as a lyricist with a McCartney-like talent for a melodic hook, then you really have something. Lines like “sulky boy won’t drink his milk” or “why so high the expectation” have a strong internal beat. One can especially appreciate the doubling of vowel sounds in the “why” and “high” in that line, and the way word “expectation” accents the beat of the song (the same is true for “explanation” and “that you are under.”)

5. Soap and Water

Like “Penitent,” and “Widow’s Walk,” the words of “Soap and Water” are, when read without benefit of the music, almost too painful to read. And like “Penitent” and “Widow’s Walk,” the production on this song places a pop music interface between these stark words and the listener, providing something of a buffer between ourselves and words that are, on one level, like gazing at some intensely personal and private moment.

For those who might like such songs “straight up” and undiluted, the production on this song, however accomplished it maybe, will be a disappointment. Personally, I’m still not sure how I relate to this particular song. Sung solo, the song has a far more direct and powerful sound – almost, as I mentioned earlier, too powerful to really enjoy. Here, the song is more palatable to listen on the way to work as it is clearly gentler and less stark than the solo version.

Musically and from a pure “sound” standpoint, I enjoy this production. As a means of experiencing a cathartic moment – reliving one’s own personal failures – this version is a pale reflection of the solo acoustic version. Although the acoustic version has more raw but disturbing power, this version is much more enjoyable over the long term — after all, who wants to undergo a blood-letting every time one listens to an album.

6. Song in Red and Gray

The most difficult aspect of this recording is deciding whether or not to like the device of the piano and strings alternating between the “red” passion segments (as with the piano at 2:46 with “was I the name you could never pronounce”) and the “gray” rational segments (as at 2:26 with “will you please tell me why…”).

In some respects, while the effect is quite appealing viscerally (at least initially), I sometimes find the overall effect a little too dramatic for my taste in this kind of song, whose lyric is already charged with emotion and not necessarily needing help from the instrumentation to achieve emotional effect.

7. Last Year’s Troubles

This is a song that I could imagine Jack Hardy writing; it features that witty, sardonic tone that tries to place contemporary problems – be they personal or political – into perspective. The quick double-time pace of the song – accented by the breathless guitar, drumming, and mandolins – adds to the song’s lightness (the fast pace of the acoustic guitar such as at 1:04 accentuates the satiric tone) and almost sounds like a song that you might sing in a crowded pub.

8. Priscilla

I love this song – its words, the music, the production, and the sentiment. One can picture in the mind’s eye the entire scene unfolding. Of course, the waltz beat is not an especially original idea, but it works well nevertheless.

One passage to listen for starts at 1:37 – the swelling string line with that playful and child-like ringing of the bell.

Especially effective is the slightly distorted sound of the acoustic guitar that opens the song. It is as if we are hearing the song through the distortion of time and memory. There are also those odd sounds that lurk underneath the first few lines (such as at 0:36). They sound like whale sounds; they are oddly effective in a way that I cannot understand nor articulate.

Another high point are the harmony vocals at 2:09 and 2:57; indeed the entire collection is filled with many examples of effective backing vocals.

9. If I Were a Weapon

On this song, like “When Heroes Go Down” or “Blood Makes Noise,” the treat is listening to the rapid and staccato beat of the lyric. What is especially fun is the way the lyric is so well allied to the simple drumbeat and yet is never nonsensical.

One highlight is the verse starting with “but I feel more like a needle…” It is a wonderful run-on phrase that leaves you breathless by the time you get to the end, and yet is also so perfectly descriptive of Suzanne herself – this pointed, sharp thing doggedly, even obsessively, working away at the same spot – much like the idea of playing solitaire that comes up in a few songs.

10. Harbor Song

I liked this song in its solo acoustic version. I love this version, with its off-beat drum pattern, the guitar/mandolin sound that comes in at 0:37, Suzanne’s lazy and sultry guitar line, and her wonderful bluesy, cabaret vocal.

Indeed, while there has sometimes been a jazzy feel to some of her music (such as “Undertow”) this recording much closer to the jazzy-blues than I would have thought possible (such as 1:12 with “…your fickle heart…”). A number of lines employ the run-on pattern so prevalent in jazz vocalizations (such as the way the words “once more” extends the beat of the line “I stood in line to see that handsome face once more.”)

11. Machine Ballerina

As mentioned earlier this sounds like a McCartney recording, especially the drumming, electric and acoustic guitar combination at 0:11, the whimsical organ sound, and the way the line ends at 0:20. Also effective is the way Suzanne’s vocal is distorted at 2:00 (“For your approval…”) which adds a kind of circus-y, swirly feel to the song, which is in keeping with the image I have of this mad carnival fun house.

What is decidedly not McCartney-like is the humor, richness, rhymes, and double meanings in the song. I love the vowel and consonant combinations of lines like “Am I your Mad magazine? Skin trampoline/pin-up pinball machine…” As with “If I Were a Weapon,” the rush and tumble of words and images is exhilarating and funny at the same time.

This is one of Suzanne’s most skillful songs – a devastating satire.

12. Solitaire

The hallucinatory, fun house atmosphere is carried over into “Solitaire,” which is another rapid-fire, hilarious send-up. I can picture Suzanne sitting at the computer, mindlessly playing this game (that needle picking at the same point). The cheesy, almost corny computer-like sounds (such as at 1:26) are a funny distortion of computers from some 1950’s movie idea of a big Univac-type computer. I also thought the faint word, “repetition,” repeating in the background was funny in Suzanne’s dry way with things.

13. St. Clare

What can one say? This performance, a cover of a Jack Hardy composition, is a revelation; it is like a gesture of absolution, forgiveness, and hope. It is so clear and pure in sound (especially after the distortions of “Solitaire”) that it rises out of the speakers like the lady from the lake.

Suzanne sings like as an angel. There’s the repetition of the “p’s” in “plaster and paint;” Note the shape of the phrase “could I but ride herd”; the sounds of the words “foam,” “souls,” “curl,” and “fire;” the way Suzanne says the word “desire” and how she vocalizes the words “call on that saint.”

The opening acoustic notes that are like the first rays of the sun and the slightly distorted and quavering sound of the mandolin at 0:50; notice also the way mandolin and vocals accent each other in a phrase like “barefoot and cold” and the swirling strings and woodwinds that close out the song.

The final words are both full of hope and sadness: you wait, with hope, for her return. But somehow, in the slight sadness that surrounds the song, in the ominous percussion beneath the final lines, in the way the song suddenly ends, you know that we will wait forever.