Her voice is a glass of ice water in your sun-dazed hand. Yet its insistent cool can be a problem. As precise as her diction is, and no matter how refined her tone, their reliability makes many listeners hear her newer records as no more than more of the same. Unless they see her perform. Indeed, it would make sense if Vega were a bore live. She doesn't use a big band, her music is not particularly bound to the backbeat, and the strongest feeling most of her recordings communicate is dispassion. But something happens when she's onstage. Words, delightfully weightless in the privacy of home or automobile, strain under the weight they bear.
It's hard to believe until you see it. But if you've ever listened to Vega with pleasure, it's worth making the trip to the Cajun House. This time around, she's sure to be her most intense. Last year's Songs in Red and Gray was shadowed by her divorce from husband and producer Mitchell Froom. Since then, Vega has been active with the Greenwich Village Songwriter Exchange, raising funds for the victims of September 11 with the Vigil compilation. And her younger brother Tim died in April at age 36. Although biographical criticism is always risky, in this case it will be impossible to avoid.
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The standout track on Songs in Red and Gray is "(I'll Never Be) Your Maggie Mae," in which Vega rejects the role of desperate older woman: "I'd rather take myself away/Be like those ladies in Japan/Rather paint myself a face/Conjure up some grace/Or be the eyes behind a fan." Unlike Liz Phair's answer to the Rolling Stones on Exile in Guyville, Vega's keeps irony to a minimum. Her "I" wants something else, no need to get worked up. In "If I Were a Weapon," her partner imagines that she's a gun. She replies: "I feel more like a needle/Always pulling on the thread/Always making the same point again/And wondering if you've heard what I just said." She could be singing about her marriage or her career. If it's the latter, that's hardly a bad thing. See Vega live to tighten the stitch.