Graded on a Curve:
Alan Vega, Alan Vega

Although he departed this mortal coil last July, the spirit of Alan Vega remains vital to contemporary music, mainly through his work as the vocal half of the groundbreaking unit he formed in the early ’70s with keyboardist Martin Rev. Today, Suicide is justly celebrated as one of punk’s most beautifully twisted and truly sui generis outfits, but the appreciation hasn’t really spilled over to the solo careers of either member. Out of print for decades, the contents of Vega’s self-titled 1980 debut highlight a ’50s rockabilly-ish approach that’s loose, non-studious, and yet thoroughly sincere; its welcome vinyl reissue is out now courtesy of the Futurismo label.

Solo albums generally work best when they provide some sort of departure from the artist’s main gig, and Alan Vega surely fits that bill. Suicide’s second album (titled Suicide: Alan Vega and Martin Rev), illuminates the duo’s connection to synth-pop and electronica; Alan Vega was released shortly afterward, and is succinctly described as an off kilter early rock ‘n’ roll experience, landing halfway between revamp and throwback.

How so exactly? Well, the record’s opener gets right down to business, with “Jukebox Babe” clearly indebted to the hip-swiveling swagger and vocal affirmations (i.e. a whole lot of “uh-huh”s) of Elvis in his spring chicken days. Overall, the results sport an unserious vibe, and it’s easy to imagine it pissing off more than a few purists, but simultaneously, the formally recognizable nature of the tune scored Vega an unlikely hit in France. Or maybe not so unlikely, as the region has been a reliably enthusiastic locus of rockabilly and roots fandom for a long fucking time.

The distaste of those purists was possibly deepened by the slimmed-down nature of the proceedings, with Phil Hawk playing the guitar and Vega orchestrating everything else. The study in minimalism doesn’t subside, with “Fireball”’s strategic repetition (and the vocals, natch) obviously recalling Suicide, but with a flavor that’s ultimately distinct. The spurts of reverbed keyboards throughout the track accentuate the contempo angle, but its more interesting how Vega simultaneously toys with and remains true to the essence of early rock ‘n’ roll; born in 1938, he saw the stuff unfold firsthand.

“Jukebox Babe” was the hit, but “Kung Foo Cowboy” might be the cut that sums up the record best. The title suggests a novelty number, and that’s not off-target, but the execution is committed, delivering an aura of fun while avoiding the lightweight or throwaway. The cut does reinforce Vega’s adeptness with narratives, though it’s not an especially deep story; “Love Cry” (not an Albert Ayler cover) follows, its foreboding mood temporarily vacating the ’50s rock ‘n’ roll zone in favor of tension akin to cinematic suspense.

“Speedway” quickly returns to the early rock environment but maintains the link to the movies, coming off like a theme to a Presley flick about car racing, at least up to the point where the lyrics mention gasoline and cocaine; at that point, it begins conjuring images of (an unfortunately fictive) Red Line 7000 remake by the young, surly Abel Ferrara. Which is a splendid thing to contemplate.

Like most of Alan Vega, “Speedway” reinforces its maker’s ability to craft accessible if still tangibly unconventional fare, a combo many observers circa 1980 probably didn’t think he had in him. Up to this point the album’s thrust is a bit like soaking up a rack of B-movies via late-night TV while eating leftover Chinese and sucking down lukewarm Black Label, but “Ice Drummer” throws a beauty move into the mix.

As it plays, it’s hard to not think of “Dream Baby Dream,” but “Ice Drummer” is fuller (thanks to a cyclical guitar and drums motif), less meditative, and leans a bit closer to pop. It leads to the longest and most Suicide-like entry on the LP; “Bye Bye Bayou” finds Vega embodying an unsurprisingly twisted role as the music gets post-apocalyptically swampy around him.

While not as gripping as “Frankie Teardrop,” it’s still sure to be divisive. It differs wildly and yet complements the record’s final selection; “Lonely” has been tagged as an homage to “Heartbreak Hotel,” and that’s apt, but it also oozes a sort of refined (but not slick) guitar atmosphere, recalling Mickey Baker and even Santo and Johnny.

“Lonely” lent “Jukebox Babe” a B-side, and the two songs effectively bookend Alan Vega as everything in between deftly shows off its creator’s inventiveness and range. Perhaps it’s just that it sucks that he’s gone, but this record hangs together quite well and has aged much better than expected. It’s terrific that it’s easily available.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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