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ALBUM REVIEW: "Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles" by Suzanne Vega

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
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ALBUM REVIEW: Suzanne Vega – Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles (Amanuensis Productions) 2014

I don’t know why it is with some albums that it takes a few spins before something clicks. It’s happened before, just as it has with certain movies. I remember not liking Wes Anderson’s Rushmore when I first saw it. Now, I can watch it again and again. A modern classic in my estimation.

So, when I first heard the highly-anticipated new album from folk-pop thinker and musician Suzanne Vega recently- titled Tales from the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles – I was expecting, oh, I don’t know, something more exciting and challenging.

Why? Perhaps because I had been in a nostalgic mood a few weeks back, playing her dynamite, experimental Mitchell Froom-produced album 99.9 F album over and over. I had seen her on that tour in ’93 with the amazing Kitchens of Distinction and so it held a special place in my memory.

So, what of Queen of Pentacles? Well, I should first note that on her Facebook page, when Vega offered a list of potential album titles including “The Queen of Pentacles,” I adamantly suggested she go with that title. Glad to see she did, for the most part. Again, I was excited to hear this new 10-song collection, produced by collaborator and musician Gerry Leonard.

Again, it didn’t quite jump out at me until I listened to it with fresh ears a week or so later. By then, I realized, “This is really, really good!”

“Crack in the Wall,” which kicks off Side 1, is pure folk-poetry, as only Suzanne Vega can create. The subtle rock and acoustic instrumentation that accompanies Vega on this mid-tempo track enhance it, but it is really Vega’s unique voice that makes it magic.

And for those curious about the Tarot connection, it is track two, and “Fool’s Complaint,” where she explains, over Indigo Girls-esque folk-rock arrangements and background vocals, that she identifies with The Fool, rather than the imperious, unbending Queen of Pentacles.

How I hate the Queen of Pentacles! / Sitting on her golden throne / In her domestic tyranny / All roads lead back to her alone.”

Things get darker – literally – with “I Never Wear White,” a gritty, spare rocker that the late Johnny Cash could certainly appreciate: “Black is the truth / of my situation /. And for those of my station / In life, all other colors lie.”

Vega, a New Yorker through-and-through, rounds out Side 1 with the infectious “read-the-warning-label” track “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” (yes, that is 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” being sampled – nice!) and another Tarot-themed track called “Portrait of the Knight of Wands” with it’s melancholy feel and Jimmy Page-inspired “ancient knowledge” references. A quiet and thoughtful standout on this record.

Side 2 has its fine moments as well. “Silver Bridge” features a transcendent instrumental break that captured my attention. And while rooted in acoustic, stringed instruments, Vega has always liked percussion, as heard on “Song of the Stoic” and the handclaps of “Jacob and the Angel.” And then there is Sterling Campbell and Doug Yowell’s percussion work on “Laying on Of Hands/Stoic” a song with a beat all its own and a message worth hearing.

The album closes with “Horizon (There is a Road)” which she wrote for anti-totalitarian Czech leader and humanitarian Vaclav Havel. A fitting ending to a fine album.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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