“A Girl in Teen City” – Oh Susanna

5 stars (out of 5)

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A Girl in Teen City ScrollerNot so much a concept album as a themed album; Suzie Ungerleider (Oh Susanna) has produced a wonderfully moving album set in her teenage years in 1980s Vancouver. As the album unfolds, the sense of time and place are reinforced by the musical references (mainly second generation punk) and geographical references to Vancouver and her birthplace Northampton, Massachusetts. Don’t think for a minute that it’s all rose-tinted nostalgia; there is a bit of that, but Suzie doesn’t ignore the darker side of adolescence. “A Girl in Teen City” is a gorgeous piece of work and one where the musical settings are perfectly matched to the lyrics; there are lots of contributors, but the production always feels really uncluttered, leaving Suzie’s beautiful voice plenty of space to deliver her moving and poetic lyrics (‘We’d dream in black and white and chocolate’ from the haunting “Puget Sound”). 

The songs are sequenced in roughly chronological order, beginning with the innocent friendship of “Flashlights”, working through the sexual experimentation of “Darkroom at the School”, drugs, booze and bands in “Getting Ready” and “Tickets on the Weekend”, to the Springsteenesque street sleaze, disillusionment, and finally acceptance of “My Old Vancouver”. And there’s humour as well, in “My Boyfriend”, the true story of an ex-boyfriend chosen for a band because of his looks, who couldn’t actually sing. It’s a feminist message as the young woman who can actually sing sits it out and watches the audition. “Thunderbird” is an “American Graffiti”-style story about the cool factor of working to pay for, and falling in and out of love with a broken-down T-Bird. 

Apart from the perfect songs and the understated playing (no solos, well, just one guitar break), the lyrics are shot through with references to the music of the era, with mentions (directly or indirectly) of The Ramones, Teenage Head, DOA, Prince and Camper van Beethoven (very indirectly). There’s something here for anyone who appreciates the art of songwriting and great musicianship. I haven’t heard a better, or more complete, album this year so far. 

“A Girl in Teen City” is released on Friday May 12 on Continental Song City (CSCCD1142).