Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Sting




Several excellent solo albums here from an unfairly maligned (sometimes) artist....

The Dream Of The Blue Turtles (1985)

Only seven years after launching himself as a punk with The Police’s rough and ready debut album, Sting was putting this out, his debut solo album. A very “adult” piece of work it was too - full of jazz and laid-back vibes. The sound quality on this album is outstanding. It has crystal clear percussion, saxophone and a nice, warm bass. It is a genuine pleasure to listen to. At the time his many punk/new wave fans pretty much disowned him upon this album's release, amid complaints that he had "lost it" and become "pretentious/full of himself" and the like.                 

If You Love Somebody Set Them Free is an upbeat piece of pulsating jazzy, soulful rock. It is somewhat more rock-ish than most of the album. Love Is The Seventh Wave is a rhythmic, reggae-tinged lively number enhanced by some melodic South African-style saxophone. He even spoofs his Police hit Every Breath You Take at the end, with the line “every cake you bake”Russians meant well in its message at the time, but it sounds very naive, simplistic and dated now. Children's Crusades is in a similar, admirable anti-war vein, it is very moving and evocative, both lyrically and musically.

Shadows In The Rain has a strange intro, but once it gets going it sounds like a jazzy working of a Police song. It is upbeat, lively and impressively played. 
Consider Me Gone is a sumptuous, laid-back slice of jazz-blues with an impressive vocal. Great saxophone in it too. Very atmospheric and entrancing. It gets very upbeat and vibrant at the end, drum-wise.We Work The Black Seam is a moving, topical song about the decline of the coal mining industry set against an infectious slowly rhythmic beat and a beautiful saxophone floating in and out. 

The Dream Of The Blue Turtles is a minute or so of jazzy piano and captivating bass. A mood track, that’s all. It gets you ready for the next one, which is a good one. Moon Over Bourbon Street is just wonderful. Jazzy and atmospheric with tango and classical influences and Branford Marsalis’s delicious saxophone. Sting’s vocal is ideal for this material. Quality. Great lyrics too - “the brim of my hat hides the eye of a beast…”. Sting was/is a much underrated lyricist. The album ends with the slightly Japanese-sounding Fortress Around Your Heart (at the beginning). It is backed with the by now ubiquitous melodic bass. Half way through a big, kicking drum beat launches in and it sounds more like a Police in their later-era song. Either way it is great closer to what was a decidedly impressive debut solo album.

Nothing Like The Sun (1987)

This, for me, is one of Sting’s finest albums. It is another in the jazzy style of his debut solo album, The Dream Of The Blue Turtles. The musicianship and sound quality on it is absolutely outstanding. I will not have anyone laying into Sting when he produces music like this. The album is a joy from beginning to end.
          
The Lazarus Heart kicks off with world-music influenced percussion, sumptuous jazzy saxophone, great bass and one of those delightful rhythmic vibes to it that Sting was now specialising in. A lot of Paul Simon influences abound on many of Sting’s albums. They are certainly here, muscially and lyrically. Be Still My Beating Heart is another gloriously atmospheric song, with a captivating vocal and bass line. The whole vibe on this album is excellent. Englishman In New York is the best-known track on the album. It is a good one, full of atmosphere and impossibly catchy, as most people know.History Will Teach Us Nothing has both a magnificent, brooding, bassy reggae-tinged backing and one hell of a message. That feeling continues into the next track. They Dance Alone with its distinctive Andean pipe backing and sumptuous saxophone is a marvellously captivating, emotive song concerning human rights abuses in Chile. The refrain is beautiful. This is one of Sting’s most meaningful songs, in my opinion. Criticise him if you must, not the motivation or message behind songs like this. Just check out the plaintive, emotional beauty of Fragile for further justification.

We'll Be Together is one of the album’s more upbeat, catchy songs, with a vibrant brass backing, punchy sound and some almost sampling bits. It is almost a Sting “dance number”. 
Straight To My Heart is a slightly Latin-influenced, syncopated rhythmic number that has echoes of Paul Simon’s Rhythm Of The Saints album in its backing. Like that album, this track is similarly appealing. Simon's album, however, was recorded two years later, so maybe this one influenced that. Rock Steady is a fun, lively, loose jazzy number that sees Sting sounding vaguely like Rod Stewart in his throaty delivery. Sister Moon is an absolutely delicious slice of late-night jazzy fare. Sting’s voice is smoky, but sliky smooth and strangely comforting. The jazz brass backing and solid, resonant stand-up jazz bass adds to the song’s intoxicating atmosphere. The line “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” comes from a Shakespeare sonnet, I believe. Sting says it was bizarrely and surprisingly quoted to him one night by a drunk, an incident which inspired the writing of the song. This is another number that can be offered up as an answer to those who dismiss Sting. This is quality material. No question.

Little Wing has Sting sounding like Rod Stewart again, strangely. The Secret Marriage is a piano and vocal, comparatively low-key (but pleasant enough) end to a seriously good album.

The Soul Cages (1991)

This is a truly excellent album, possibly one of Sting’s best. It deals, loosely, after the passing of Sting’s father, with his life and also the lives of others growing up in Northumberland in the early part of the twentieth century - the shipyards, the fishing industry the way of life, the religion. The music is excellent too, immaculately played, with a great sound quality.
                               
In Island Of Lost Souls is contained the heart of this album, from the haunting Northumbrian pipes that open the song, through the subtle orchestration and crystal clear percussion to Sting’s mournful vocal concerning the history of the Newcastle shipyards. People can lay into Sting as much they like, but a song like this is a beautiful, sensitive and historically relevant song. It is a superb creation. Top marks. Despite its tragic tale, it is always a thoroughly rewarding listen. “A Newcastle ship without coals - they would sail to the island of souls….”.

All This Time is the most catchy and upbeat song on the album, with a singalong refrain and a sort of Deacon Blue feel to it. It is also another one to have Paul Simon vibes about it. Mad About You has another captivating rhythm to it and a gently reassuring vocal. Jeremiah Blues (Part 1) is a big, thumping upbeat mid-pace rock song, with (as the title suggests) a blues influence. It is one of the most rocking tracks on the album. Why Should I Cry For You is a deep, sonorous Paul Simon-influenced number with yet more enticing atmosphere. Sting’s voice is once again truly outstanding on here - sensual and expressive. The backing vocals are impressive too and when the drums kick in it has a huge, dignified power. Another outstanding track.

Saint Agnes And The Burning Train is a beautiful, Spanish guitar-led short instrumental. It is simply lovely. The Wild Wild Sea is a moving lament of a narrative tale about loss at sea underpinned by some excellent bass and cymbals. 
The Soul Cages has a solid, muscular rock beat and is one of the best cuts on the album. A lot of the material on this album is considerably more accessible than popularly thought. It has a lovely saxophone break in it too. When The Angels Fall is a lengthy, slow and evocative number, dealing with Catholicism and other religious beliefs. Despite its seven minutes, it never outstays its welcome. It is smoothly appealing. This has been a most enjoyable, meaningful, thoughtful and beautifully created album. Highly recommended.

Ten Summoner's Tales (1993)

This is a perfectly-crafted, fully realised album from Sting. For many it is his best. I have other favourites of his but it is certainly a good one. It is simply great music - played by top quality musicians, with a soulful, sensitive delivery from an artist who attracts undeserved criticism, in my opinion. These are quality songs and the album is a very pleasurable one. The sound quality on it is superb, too.
                
If I Ever Lose My Faith In You is a perfect opener, catchy, slow-burning. immaculately played with great sound. Love Is Stronger Than Justice is a Springsteen-esque song, lyrically, with a rocking country-ish beat and some excellent bluesy guitar and organ interjections throughout. The track rocks, convincingly. There is an excellent bass, piano and drum interplay at the end too. The stand out track is, of course, the stunning, sublime, incredibly moving Fields Of Gold. The vocal delivery is outstanding, as is the acoustic guitar, keyboards and Northumbrian pipes backing. A strong contender for Sting’s best ever song.

Heavy Cloud No Rain is a deliciously bassy, pulsating, bluesy number. She's Too Good For Me is also bluesy, but fast, breakneck blues this time. Seven Days returns to a more typical, mournful-sounding Sting sound and thoughtful lyrics. Saint Augustine In Hell is a shuffling, funky jazz number that rides on an effortless groove with a strong, gruff vocal. The strange spoken vocal bit half way through, however, is completely incongruous and bizarre, but it kicks back into a great organ break, thankfully. It's Probably Me (co-written with Eric Clapton) has some delicious jazzy saxophone and an entrancing, syncopated slow rhythm. The bass is subtly beautifu too. Sting’s vocal is laid-back and suited to the song. 

Everybody Laughed But You is a solid, bassy and jazzy in parts laid-back number, with a Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar underpinning it too, and a great solo piece. There is a convincing soulfulness to Sting’s voice on this one. Shape Of My Heart is another slow and soulful number, with a captivating percussion sound. Something The Boy Said has a captivating, deep bass line and a soulful laid-back, vaguely haunting melody, backed by some lovely saxophone. Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me) is a deliciously jazzy, lively number to end the album on. A most enjoyable listen.

Coming up are three more Sting albums that tended to plough the same furrow, to an extent:-

 
Mercury Falling (1996)

This one is by far the best of the three.

Sting's compositions here are multi-layered, soulful offerings from a master craftsman who clearly loves creating music. Never mind his supposed pretentions - the guy could knock out a tune in his sleep and is a most underrated lyricist. High quality instrumentation is all over this album - as always.


The Hounds Of Winter is a lovely, laid-back piece of typical Sting meaningful groove, featuring the afore-mentioned high quality instrumentation and sound, as I said - as always. I Hung My Head is catchy and rockingly infectious and has a great sax sound on it. I love this one. The lengthy Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot was a popular number from the album and is gently soulful, with a nice bassy backbeat. The sparse I Was Brought To My Senses is hauntingly beautiful with an initial vocal and acoustic melody (with subtle Uilleann pipes) that brings to mind his If On A Winter's Night album. When the song breaks loose it is similarly fetching and gentle, with an enchanting rhythm. You Still Touch Me is a laid-back, slightly reggae-backed number while I'm So Happy I Stand Stop Crying is a thoroughly delightful piece of melodic country rock, steel guitar and all. All Four Seasons is an attractive Stax-influenced brassy soul number. This is another one I really like - get a load of those horn breaks and the fatback drums. Sting's voice is at its souliest. 

The horn-driven soul feel is continued on the equally impressive Twenty-Five To Midnight. A captivating world music (mainly Brazilian) drum backing can be found on the engaging La Belle Dame Sans Regret, which has Sting singing in French. It features some nice Latin piano too. Valparaiso is a vocal, acoustic and violin beguiling ballad enhanced by a fine rhythmic bit at the end. Lithium Sunset is a mid-paced and attractive, once more country-influenced number.

Brand New Day (2000)


This is a comparatively little-mentioned Sting album that, while betraying many familiar Sting-isms has a strong and varied world music ambience together with some contemporary backing sounds as well. It is more vibrant than its predecessor but, on reflection, I think I prefer the former’s subtle nuances.

A Thousand Years is one of those Sting-by-numbers, subtly rhythmic, world music-influenced sleepy grooves. There is a nice, deep bassy warmth to the sound that reflects contemporary musical trends. Desert Rose is the track that probably got the most airplay. This one is very influenced by Arabic-muslim West African-Sufi rhythms and is most seductive, sonically. Although Sting had been here before, in terms of influence, it still shows quite a radical departure in sound - quite different from those early jazzy influences. In fact, it is notable Algerian musician Cheb Mami who guests on the track. 


Big Lie Small World has a catchy, acoustic Latin-esque guitar backing and some hip-hop-r ‘n’ b style slowly thumping drums and along with a fine Branford Marsalis clarinet makes for an intoxicating brew. After The Rain Has Fallen has a fine, driving percussion sound, some great organ and a catchy chorus break. It reminds me a bit of If I Should Lose My Faith In You. Current sexy dance shuffles introduce the slow and seductive Perfect Love...Gone Wrong. Sting’s vocal is impressive on this, although the departure into French rap breaks the atmosphere somewhat, although I quite like its jerky, staccato jazziness. Check out that lovely, deep bass too. A similar, but more relaxing, late-night mood is to be found on Tomorrow We’ll See.

Just as on the previous album, Sting dabbles in country on the immensely enjoyable and lively Fill Her Up and Ghost Story is one of those suitably ghostly and ethereal wintry-sounding songs that Sting does so well. Brand New Day has Stevie Wonder unmistakably guesting on harmonica on a shuffling, attractive end to an underrated album.


Sacred Love (2003)


Probably the least interesting of the three is this, which saw Sting using guest collaborators, Santana-style and, to a certain extent, sacrificing innovation for sonic perfection. The songs don't offer much deviation from the Sting blueprint, save the now-obligatory contemporary beats. It makes for impressive, effective mood music - dinner party fare. Is is still a pleasant enough listen. however.


The album was somewhat blighted by suffering from the 2000s affliction of being released in multiple versions and formats, something that detracts from its identity. I still don't know which version I have.


Inside is a typically shuffling Sting number of the type that has appeared on many albums while Send Your Love is an excellent, upbeat and bassy song, full of verve and vitality. Great percussion on it too along with those Arabic-style strings Sting likes to use. Whenever I Say Your Name is a nice slow number, enhanced by a guest vocal from Mary J. Blige. Dead Man's Rope has a soulful, deep ambience to it. Never Coming Home features some programmed, contemporary drum sounds and a nice, jazzy piano bit at the end. Stolen Car was the album's best known track, and it is a beguilingly rhythmic one as also is the enjoyable Forget About The Future, one I particularly like. Talking, as I was earlier, of Santana, This War starts with some very Carlos-esque fuzzy guitar and is one of Sting's rockiest tracks for a long while. The Book Of My Life is archetypal Sting once again with that North African percussion providing an attractive backbeat and Sacred Love is also instantly recognisable as Sting. Nothing wrong with this at all. You know what you're going to get and it duly delivers, it just doesn't push any boundaries.


If On A Winter's Night (2009)

Released on the Deutsche Grammophon classical label, this is a Christmas-winter album with a difference. I love it. For me, I am eternally thankful that it doesn't contain any US 1950's crooning material, or any well-known traditional carols, for that matter. It is an evocative, haunting, poetic and highly atmospheric selection of seasonally appropriate songs, delivered by Sting and assorted top quality musicians (Chris BottiDavid SanciousDavid Mansfield and Lisa Fischer among many others) in a loose folky style from his house in Tuscany. Sting's voice is excellent and ideally suited to the quiet material and there are several captivating instrumental passages, particularly the Northumbrian pipes, beautifully played by Kathryn Tickell.

There is some direct Christmas-themed stuff in the lovely Gabriel's Message and Cherry Tree Carol but also some unusual folk songs like the infectious Soul CakeChristmas At Sea and Balulalow
There is also a re-recording of Hounds Of Winter from the Mercury Falling album. Personally this has now become the first "Christmas" album that I play every year, usually after a week or so of December. It is a gentle, low-key and very enjoyable listen on a dark winter's night. I have to say that it is very sombre, almost bleak in its sparse sound, and certainly will not appeal to 90% of the population, but if you are not the "party" type and wish to enjoy your festive music in a discerning, understated, folky fashion, then I can highly recommend this. It is part of every December in my house. It has an excellent cover too.

57th & 9th (2016)

After dabbling in classical music with Symphonicities and writing a musical in The Last ShipSting returned to his more recognisable style of laid-back, sometimes slightly jazzy rock/pop with this appealing album. The street intersection of the title refers to the roads he crossed in New York City on his way to the studio he recorded this album in.
                                      
I Can't Stop Thinking About You is an upbeat, riffy rocker that wouldn't have sounded out of place on either of The Police's last three albums. 50,000 is even more riffy in its beginning, before it delivers a quiet verse based on Sting's reactions to the passing of Prince and David Bowie. The chorus comes blasting back in, anthemically. It is a most atmospheric, evocative number. Down, Down, Down also has a very Police-esque guitar line underpinning it, together with a nostalgic-sounding chorus.

One Fine Day is another very typically Sting piece of pop-rock. Solid and muscular. Pretty Young Soldier is a strange, homoerotic historically-based song, while the chunky Petrol Head has some heavy passages and some echoes of Bruce Springsteen in places. 
Heading South On The Great North Road is an acoustic, folky tale reflecting Sting's North-Eastern roots. If You Can't Love Me is slightly messy in its structure, with a paranoid vocal. Maybe it grows on you, but I find its chorus part a bit discordant. Inshallah is a peaceful, seductively rhythmic number and The Empty Chair is a Celtic-influenced folk lament to end this short but interesting album. It is a sensitively-constructed work whose sometimes introspective feel demands several listens.

44/876 (2018)
         
This is an odd, surprising coupling from two artists whose halcyon days are behind them (66 year-old Sting and 50 year-old Shaggy). Maybe is is not so much of a shock, though Sting has always liked his reggae, from those credible early Police cuts and Shaggy has also like to extend himself soulfully beyond mere ragga-style toasting. I have come to this album a year late and was sceptical when I first saw it, but upon first listen I was proved wrong. It is quite an endearing offering and well worth a listen. It functions both as a good contemporary reggae album and also a good Sting album. The artists blend pleasingly well together without any awkward self-consciousness. It all sounds quite effortlessly easy.

44/876 refers to the international dialling codes for the UK and Jamaica and is a quirky, fun and poppy number that sees both singers performing in their typical style. They merge quite well, although, for me, the bass sound is overpowering (and I love bass), but that is just the way of the contemporary genre. It is actually the only track where this happens, though. Morning Is Coming has a less booming bass sound, some archetypally Sting tenor saxophone backing and more great vocals from both of them. Waiting For The Break Of Day is an infectious Sting-dominated track that could easily be included on any of his other albums. Shaggy still has a vocal part, though, and it doesn't sound out of place. Personally, I find the sound production ideal on this one, in comparison to 44/876. Lovely, rumbling, melodic bass on it. Gotta Get Back My Baby has Shaggy singing more than toasting and he is pretty good, his vocals croaky and soulful. Don't Make Me Wait is a lovely, summery, laid-back groove full of the feel of a Jamaican resort on a hot afternoon. Sting's voice on this is superb, as good as it has sounded for a long time. He sounds quite revitalised by this, coming across as if he is really enjoying himself. 

Just One Lifetime is a ragga cut with typical Shaggy vocals and rhythm. One would expect that Sting's arrival with his "Ten Summoner's Tales" delivery would just not fit in, but it is the opposite, it merges perfectly on another addictive pop-ragga number. 22nd Street is a crooning, atmospheric, late-night Sting song enhanced by Shaggy. The strength of this album can be summed up in these two songs - the former a ragga song augmented by Sting, the latter a Sting song lifted higher by Shaggy. They do this really well. Dreaming In The USA could, at times, be a Police song in its musical construction, although its lyrics are somewhat cheesy and superficial. It is infuriatingly catchy, however. Crooked Tree has Shaggy singing with a Buju Banton growl on a Sting folky, narrative song about a historical criminal's court appearance. It could easily be from his Last Ship album. The mood returns to a lively one on the poppy reggae of To Love And Be Loved, which is another intoxicating, appealing number. Sad Trombone is a jazzy, very Sting song and one that would fit easily on to any of his solo albums. Night Shift is yet another really good song. This is up there with the best of Sting's solo output, for me. Stick it on a "Best Of Sting" playlist and it certainly would not sound out of place. This is a highly recommended album, there is not a bad track on it.

My Songs (2019)

After a surprisingly enjoyable and credible duet album with ragga singer Shaggy in 2018, Sting's next  release, in 2019, is a collection of new interpretations of some of his songs from both his solo career and The Police. I am usually sceptical about such experiments, being of the view that you can't usually beat the originals, that are often so heavily embedded in your consciousness that re-workings of them often seem like a violation. Paul Simon did it recently on In The Blue Light, although his choice of songs was considerably more "deep cut" than Sting's. Van Morrison has done it too on both Duets and You're Driving Me CrazyMary Chapin Carpenter made her songs sound as if they were from a movie soundtrack. Sting has "previous" in this field as well, with 2010's orchestral re-workings, Symphonicities.

Sting has explained his motivation for doing this project thus:-

"...Some of them (the songs) reconstructed, some of them refitted, some of them reframed, and all of them with a contemporary focus..."

So, there you have it, he is trying to make songs that in some cases are over forty years old more accessible and acceptable, musically, to today's younger generation. The most pertinent line in his quote is, of course, "contemporary focus". Not to put too fine a point on it, that means a huge, bassy, thumping backing is seemingly going to be nailed on to each track. Whether a subtle, musically intricate and lyrically sensitive song like Brand New Day needs a pounding bass boom beat to make it more appealing is certainly questionable. Similarly, If You Love Somebody Set Them Free is a great song anyway. The mix here reminds me of one of those "12" remixes" that would appear as a bonus track on "deluxe remasters", where the original song has a sledgehammer, dance-ish beat put on it, along with some layered backing vocals. I do like the Eastern instrumentation added to Desert Rose, though. That is a good new incarnation. As the album progresses, though, the deep backing of Brand New Day does not prove to be a signpost for the whole album. It is certainly not all simply sticking hip/hop levels of bass backing on everything.

The always creepy Every Breath You Take is actually not changed too much. Demolition Man has some excellent guitar and a muscular "oomph". Viewed completely impartially, I have to say I quite like this one. 
Can't Stand Losing You is great, this new version has a bassy, sometimes dubby vibe that the old tinny-ish single lacked. Sting's voice has also, significantly, lost none of its power or character over the years. Now, Fields Of Gold. Everyone surely accepts the original as a work of beauty that needs no tinkering with. To my relief, however, I find this version live up to the demands of the wonderful song without over-bassing it. There is some subtle Celtic pipe backing and a crystal clear acoustic guitar and Sting's voice is as evocative as the song dictates it should be.

I always loved the white reggae groove of So Lonely and that original skank has not been abandoned here, neither has its powerful chorus part. This is a song I know back to front, but I have to say I do not feel to affronted by this reading of it. It has a magnificent, throbbing but melodic bass line on it, which is actually more than welcome. You know, I'm really enjoying this. Shape Of My Heart has the same bright acoustic backing that it always did, but it now has an extra deep backing thump that makes it sound a bit like something from Santana's Supernatural. It has always been a lovely song, and it still is. 

Message In A Bottle has a refreshing, lively re-doing, with another sonorous but still appealing bass line. Yes, it can be argued, convincingly, that there is little point in re-recording such familiar songs, but, as I listen to this, I tend to treat it more as if I am listening to a live concert recording of it and therefore find myself able to enjoy it for what it is. Fragile is simply a gorgeous song that doesn't need much tinkering, but, again, using the "live recording" theory, I have derived considerable satisfaction from the rendering, particularly the sublime Spanish-style guitar. Walking On The Moon has not lost its dubby vibe and sounds pretty consistent with the original. It now has better sound quality, you have to concede. Englishman In New York, thankfully, retains its soprano saxophone (I am not sure if it is still Branford Marsalis on it, only having the download with no access to musician information). This is another track that has not changed too much. If I Ever Lose My Faith In You features a Springsteen-esque bit of harmonica and is another one that I find myself really warming to. From an initial position of ambiguity towards this project, I have to say I have really enjoyed listening to it. So there you go. It worked, I guess. Whether this experiment will win Sting a whole host of new teen-twenty-something fans is highly debatable. Most who listen to this will probably gnarled old veterans like me.

** PS. The live versions that appear on the "deluxe edition" are all excellent too - Synchronicity IINext To YouSpirits In The Material World and Fragile.

Check out Sting's work with The Police here (click on the image) :-

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