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POP REVIEWS : AN UPTOWN GIRL AND HOMETOWN HEROES : Vega's Precious Songs Number More Than a Few

August 03, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

To call Suzanne Vega a bit precious is like calling the Beastie Boys a bit unruly.

Widely hailed as pop's latest literary darling, the 27-year-old New York singer-songwriter came across Saturday night at the sold-out Wiltern Theatre as the kind of urbane and sophisticated personality you'd expect to pop up in a Woody Allen movie.

But Allen probably wouldn't cast her as the endearing and profound artist that her fans picture. He'd more likely make her an object of ridicule--something like the stuffed shirt standing in the line for the movie in "Annie Hall."

On her two A&M albums, the idea of Vega--as a woman with the imaginative wordplay of Joni Mitchell and the aggressive artiness of Laurie Anderson--is so seductive that it helps camouflage the mediocrity of her weakest songs.

Indeed, this concept is so appealing for a post-folk audience starving for a hint of originality and content in modern pop that Vega has become the surprise hit of the year. Her "Luka," a surprising tale about child abuse, is a Top 10 single and her "Solitude Standing" album is in the Top 20.

Though much of the audience at the Wiltern seemed intent on crowning their new Queen of Sensitivity, Vega-the-performer seemed far less enticing than Vega-the-idea.

Imagine the fun Allen would have with a character who walked up to him in a crowded room and said, "I'd like to meet you/ In a timeless/ Placeless place/ Somewhere out of context/ And beyond all consequences."

Matters weren't helped Saturday as Vega frequently explained the meaning of her tales about isolation and solitude. The low point was a long-winded and condescending story about a fan who came up to her after a show to ask her to explain the ending of her song, "The Queen and the Soldier."

If the fan had any sense, he should have told Vega to get rid of the tedious song about the struggle for power in a relationship. The composition--with lines like "The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye/ She said, 'You won't understand, and you may as well not try' "--is something that a struggling English major might put together for a class project about the works of Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen. Probable grade: C minus.

And it made "Calypso," an already marginal song about the ending of a love affair, seem even more paperweight when she introduced it by saying the song was inspired by reading Homer.

Don't get the idea that Vega is all bad. She shows occasional flashes of songwriting craft and an admirable willingness to reach for original perspectives. In "Marlene on the Wall," she chronicles a woman's romantic encounters through the eyes of a Dietrich photo on the apartment wall.

Unfortunately, many of her most imaginative songs are so oblique and passionless that they seem to be mere songwriting exercises rather than revelations a la Mitchell or Rickie Lee Jones. Even "Tom's Diner"--whose stark detachment is interesting initially--is such a purposeless collection of observations that its eventually becomes annoying.

Vega's frequent failure to comment on rather than merely reflect her surroundings is accentuated live by a four-piece band that is even more anonymous than many of the characters in her songs. Vega clearly stands apart from the pop crowd, but not sufficiently above it to warrant her current acclaim.

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