Suzanne Vega Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

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The Independent Culture
I'd like to say I've never been able to stand Suzanne Vega, but the truth is, I had 1985's "Small Blue Thing" and its perfectly formed B-side, "The Queen and the Soldier", and played them endlessly. Exquisite and simply constructed, both are gems articulating a fight against inner coldness, the strangling tension of wanting to feel, but being too scared to do it. On Tuesday night, these songs stood out for their sharp, bright beauty.

Vega performs them solo, dismissing her band and, as she speaks of herself as "a marble or an eye", her curiously inexpressive voice finds the place to which it is best suited. This intelligent chilly disaffection was her cachet when she first launched her sound on the stone-dead folk scene of 1980s New York, and was subsequently clutched to the world's bosom with the likes of "Marlene on the Wall" and "Left of Centre". There was a protracted fallow period until, in 1993, she began working with ubiquitous producer Mitchell Froom (Elvis Costello, Crowded House); they subsequently married. And things altered radically.

Post-marriage, post-baby (possibly post-therapy - "I had to let go of the censoring voice in my mind"), Vega's emotions blossomed and the new LP, Nine Objects of Desire, has her warm, moody and revelling in fulfilled desires. On record, it works, full of Latin beats and understated electric guitar, a cross between Steely Dan and revved-up Young Marble Giants.

Live, somehow it didn't. Played against her delicate earlier stuff, the newer work tired with lengthy, unreconstructed rock-outs from her back- up boys, Vega almost drowned in the melee. It's hard to be a rock babe when you play an acoustic, but that, it seems, is what Suzanne really wants. The songs are certainly clever, and some are sexy, witty and knowing, like the opener "Stockings", full of exotic snake-charmer pipes, or "Caramel", a barefoot samba sung with Astrid Gilberto-like breathiness. And some have hooks to die for: the single, "No Cheap Thrill", written for her husband, is groovy and propulsive, full of slick, bassy guitar.

Otherwise, the set refused to work out. Tiny and dapper in flat, buckled shoes, a schoolgirlish coat and a bob with rolled bangs (very Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis), Vega was bounced between tribal drums, crazed bass, electric clarinet and full-throated Hammond riffs hammered by her band. Occasionally - on "Boy in the Belfry" - the blend of jangly guitars seemed to lift her voice; the rest of the time, the laboured accompaniment squashed it. Brave as she is to attempt this departure, the moments to cherish were the cleaner ones of refracted prisms: "I am thrown against the sky / I am raining down in pieces / I am scattering like light, scattering like light..."