Suzanne Vega 99.9 F
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It must be difficult to have such a recognizable pop hit so early in your career that people completely miss your later, stronger, and more significant musical contributions. When most people think of Suzanne Vega, they probably think of her 1997 album Solitude Standing and her hit single, “Luka.” Well, that album’s kickoff track, “Tom’s Diner” was a small a cappella opening track and also the closing instrumental track for that album. But, it was later remixed into a great dance track by DNA in 1990 and as the 90’s got more electronic and more experimental, Vega shifted gears with her producer (later husband) Mitchell Froom to create one of my favorite albums of the 1990s: 99.9 F°. Now, I’m just guessing about the line connecting “Tom’s Diner” to 99.9 F°, but I like to think that the success of the “Tom’s Diner” single emboldened Vega to mix her songs up a bit and take more risks sonically. Granted, these are still Vega’s folk songs — but it’s not like the way Paul Simon always Simon always writes a Paul Simon song. The surrounding sounds and instruments lock his songs into a time and space and help create a mood, but it’s still the same whether it’s the 1970’s or Graceland-era Simon. Vega’s songs on 99.9 F° are different: they’re edgier, quirkier, sometimes more sweeping, definitely influenced and constructed more around the swirling production and instruments. The albums kicks off with “Rock in this Pocket”, which is probably the most conventional Vega song on the album. Then, it gets different with “Blood Makes Noise,” which the churning background machinery and drums and distant distorted tracks. Her lyrics reflect the manic, thumping beat The body and how it reflects our inner torments takes central stage in several songs on this album, whether it’s the ballad “Blood Sings” or the sing-songy, thumping title track about a man on the verge of burning up. “As Girls Go” explores physical femininity and sexuality in someone who isn’t really a girl. It’s also as if Vega is discovering her own self or the odd people around her: the boy bell ringer in the sweeping Beatlesque “In Liverpool” or the carnival characters in hurdy-gurdy style ”Fat Man and the Dancing Girl.” Vega is putting people in her movies and taking down heroes. The whole album feels like a sonically vaudevillian act with oddities with Vega as MC. There’s a disconnection between these characters and reality, and a yearning to make a connection. But don’t get too weighed down in the lyrical details, enjoy the sounds in this album: Vega’s acoustic fingerpicking or strumming; the deep bass that anchors each song; Froom’s keyboards and sound effects. The arrangements can be minimal or full Technicolor. Yeah, it’s arty, but musically interesting and doesn’t compromise Vega’s voice or her lyrics. This is a really rich album and deserves a close listen before it falls into the back of your mind and you sing along without even thinking about it. Vega’s next album Nine Objects of Desire is a great companion listen that furthers these themes, and sometimes does it better both lyrically and sonically. Sadly, Vega and Froom divorced later and their work in this vein was finished (her divorce is well documented in the heartbreaking 2001 album Songs in Red and Gray). Granted, both of her Froom-produced albums are a bit of an acquired taste and not among her best reviewed. But, 99.9 F° is a really overlooked album that could become one of your secret favorites.