Suzanne Vega, Beauty & Crime (Blue Note Records, 2007)

Despite an unlikely hit with "Luka" off her second album in 1987, and an even less likely hit when DNA did a dance club remix of her a capella song "Tom's Diner" and topped the charts with it, Suzanne Vega has spent most of her rather long career well outside of the musical mainstream. Her songs are rooted in folk music, but Vega has shown a willingness to take more chances with her music than other folksingers have. Her seventh studio album Beauty & Crime reflects the distinctive style she has developed over the years, with quirky narratives about New York City and its many characters set to mostly acoustic music with a few twists thrown in.

Much of Beauty & Crime bears the influence of the unfortunate passing of Vega's brother Tim, beginning with the opening song "Zephyr & I." Zephyr was a friend of her brother's from childhood, and in the song he and Vega are recalling things while walking in the neighborhood on the Upper West Side, just below Columbia University, where they grew up. Other songs reflect Vega's interest in American culture from fifty or sixty years ago. In "New York Is A Woman," she compares her hometown to a classic femme fatale from an old noirish movie. "New York is a woman, she'll make you cry, and to her you're just another guy." "Frank & Ava" is a discourse on the stormy relationship between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Despite the odd subject matter, the song boasts a cool guitar hook and some fine high harmonies from special guest K. T. Tunstall. (And it's likely to be the only time in history where the word "bidet" was worked into the lyrics of a pop song.)

Vega keeps the musical arrangements on Beauty & Crime characteristically eclectic. While she's generally classified as a folk artist, she can turn things up at least a little bit as well, and like to throw a few curve balls into the mix as well. On "Unbound," for example, she puts some upbeat electronic drums underneath her acoustic guitar and makes it sound perfectly natural.

As a result, Beauty & Crime never gets dull. Many folk singer/songwriters have come and gone in the twenty-two years that Suzanne Vega has been a recording artist, including plenty of women. A lot of them almost seem to go out of their way to avoid distinguishing themselves from each other musically, but Vega continues to be an exception. I don't think she's a superior songwriter to Dar Williams, another one of the exceptions, but Williams could learn a lot from Vega on how to make a folk record sound consistently fresh and interesting.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

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