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The sounds of urban folk rock filtering up from the subway.

CD Review: Susan Cagle – The Subway Recordings

When I first heard some clips of Susan Cagle’s new CD, I knew immediately that I liked it and also that it was going to be a challenge to describe why I like it. Is it the premise (recording an album in an NYC subway station)? Is it the arrangement (female vocals and a full band)? Is it the genre (pop/rock)? Most likely, it’s a combination of all of those things and then some.

The Subway Recordings was released on Tuesday, and I have had my review copy for about a month. Even in all that time, I have not been able get beyond how much I connect with the music to write about it. I hoped to have something done early this week, but as you can see, it didn’t happen.

Susan Cagle grew up in a family of musicians, but it was not until she moved to New York that she started performing on her own. Then 9/11 happened. Afterwards, she decided to play in the subways for anyone who would listen. This was where producer Jay Levine discovered her and where they decided to record her Lefthook/Columbia Records debut.

The first six tracks were recorded live at Times Square Station during rush hour. The last four tracks came from late at night in Grand Central Station. The sound of these recordings truly captures the feel of a live performance in an echoing train station. Underneath the music is a constant buzz of people and trains that becomes noticeable only in the quieter parts.

The recording kicks off with a crowdpleaser, “Shakespeare.” The song’s chorus comes from the questions that Cagle likes to ask of new acquaintances: “Do you like Shakespeare? Jeff Buckley? Watching movies on Sunday?” The hooky lead guitar and driving bass move the song forward with the sense of anticipation and excitement that fit the lyrics. The rest of the band is made up of two of Cagle’s brothers and a sister, and it’s their contributions that flesh out the songs and provide an extra bit of oomph that takes them out of the singer/songwriter box.

My favorite track off of the CD is “Manhattan Cowboy.” It has a hypnotic lead electric guitar hook that mimics the vocals on the chorus. It’s followed by my second favorite song, the melancholic yet satisfying “Happiness Is Overrated.” It’s what a little more mature Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” would sound like. The award for the most clever lyrical turn on the album has to go to “Transitional”:

I thought that we were much more than we are
‘Cause you told me that we were meant to be
I thought that you loved me unconditional
But I guess that you and I were just transitional

“Stay” is one of the first songs Cagle wrote after moving to New York, and it’s both manifesto and love song to the city. It’s also a message of hope in troubled times that speaks to anyone anywhere:

Feels like living in the city is getting harder every day
People keep on getting in your way
Seems like everybody’s talking about the mess that we have made
And everybody wants to get away
But I think I’ll stay around a little while
See if I can turn some tears into a smile
When the whole world falls apart in your hand
You gotta have a little faith
So I think I’ll stay

Tour plans for the summer have not yet been announced, so in the meantime, have a gander at this video about the recording of the album that includes some live performance clips: Windows Media (high) | Windows Media (low) | Real Media | Quicktime

Also, you can listen to a stream of the full album over at her website. But do so at your own risk and be prepared to fork over some $$ for the hard copy. Trust me. It’s that good.

About Anna Creech

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