Wednesday, February 04, 2009

New York, New York

I got two very different albums about New York City today, one by a life-long New Yorker, and one by someone who only recently moved to New York. They are very different albums, but both are pretty good.

The first is Suzanne Vega's Beauty & Crime. An interviewer said to her, "but New York City has been cleaned up, it's no longer full of crime." Suzanne looked at him with the patient look of a life-long New Yorker and said, "there will always be crime in New York City." And the biggest crime is probably that this is Suzanne's last album -- Blue Note did almost zero to promote it (not even a video), sales were awful, and Blue Note dropped her like a rock. Which is a shame, because this is an album that rewards repeated listening. Vega never gets far from her comfort zone (despite her protestations to the contrary), but that's okay. Suzanne Vega has never again hit the heights of brilliance that she hit on her first three albums, which were almost audacious in their creation of a modern folk paradigm, or her fourth album, which experimented with the limits of her art by merging industrial and folk. But what she has lost in sheer brilliance, she has gained in maturity. This is a mature album, filled with quiet observations on life from someone who has managed to survive it. You will not be blown away by this album, it is not something audaciously brilliant, but if you listen carefully you will be rewarded. If an album has to be her last album, this one certainly won't be a sour last note.

The second is Steve Earle's Washington Square Serenade, a much better album than his previous showing, The Revolution Starts Now, which only had a couple of decent songs buried amongst the polemics. The first song on the album, Tennessee Blues, is basically a fuck-you to Nashville. Other songs are often an ode to New York City ("City of Immigrants"), banjo blues ("Oxycontin Blues"), or a love song to both his new wife and his new city ("Days Aren't Long Enough"), amongst various subjects he wanders amongst. I don't know if this is a brilliant album. There are some songs here which work very, very well (like "Oxycontin Blues"). There are some that I'm still puzzling over, maybe I'll have a conclusion in a few days but I haven't listened enough times yet. But if you are a fan of Steve's music, this album is well worth buying. Hint: Get the "enhanced" version, which comes with a 35 minute DVD that has interviews with Steve, acoustic versions of some of the songs on the album, and some background info. It's expensive, but it's worth it. And unlike Suzanne's album, this is *not* going to be Steve's last album -- he's managed to create a place for himself in the music business somehow that manages to produce decent sales despite being decidedly non-commercial by music business standards.

-- Badtux the Music Penguin


  1. excellent and perceptive stuff tux. one of the things i've noticed over the last few years, is that the album, as an entity, might be a dead medium.

    people are still making them, but the sales money seems to come off single song sales at iTunes etc. that is, until the peer to peer pirates have it completely stolen.

    too bad, the only songs i've ever sold for decent money were album "fillers."

  2. I think the pop album where someone who's written maybe six decent songs in their entire life and puts two of them on each album, with the rest of the album being "fillers" that nobody in their right mind really would listen to, is on the way to the garbage bin. But there is still a place for thematic albums like the two I mention above. And iTunes actually has a place for them, typically with additional "album-specific" material. I've purchased a few entire "albums" via iTunes (stuff that's out of print that I can't buy on CD, typically) that had things like liner notes and so forth that are nice to have, if you're talking about a quality album as vs. some junk pop cr*p.

    More on the future of music and the music industry in a posting... getting late and I can't edit this comment block as easily as I can a posting block.

    Steve did something interesting with this album which was to add a DVD version where he talks about various cool stuff, his neighborhood, his music, sings a few of the songs off the album acoustic either alone or with his wife, etc. I'm wondering if multimedia stuff like that is going to be more important in the future. Hmm...

    - Badtux the Music Penguin


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