Brand New Day (A&M; 06949-04432)
Everybody knows that Sting is a pretty crafty musician. He can play several instruments and understands the intricacies of both jazz and classical music. He feels at home with almost any kind of pop, from hip-hop to samba, and thinks nothing of slipping oddly metered riffs into seemingly conventional country laments.
But that's not why we like him.
What made Sting a star -- and what endears him to us still -- is his way with a tune. At its best, Sting's music is so blissfully melodic that the compositional complexities seem to fade into the background. All we notice are those gloriously hummable hooks.
If only the hooks were more in evidence on "Brand New Day," his impressively ambitious but distressingly hit-free new album.
Instead, what we get is craft, and lots of it. Rather than offer one from the heart, and letting the tuneful, appealing side of his personality flow through, Sting stresses his cerebellum, showing off just how smart his writing and arranging can be.
Take, for instance, the relentlessly clever "Perfect Love Gone Wrong." A literal tale of puppy love, it finds Sting taking the role of a spurned canine jealous of his mistress' new, human boyfriend. To flesh out this too-droll conceit, Sting alternates between a lazily soulful shuffle and a driving, funk-based groove; he sings over the shuffle, while Ste raps in French over the funk.
Impressive? Sure. Catchy? Sorry.
To his credit, Sting keeps the album listenable despite his lack of memorable melodies. He's particularly adept at using musical color to manipulate mood, filling "A Thousand Years" with dark rumbles and ominous electronics, or playing Branford Marsalis' wistful clarinet off against the moody twang of bass guitar to convey the sexual ambivalence at the heart of his transvestite-hooker number, "Tomorrow We'll See."
At times, Sting's search for compositional color takes him into some unexpected areas, like the Algerian rai flavor that singer Cheb Mami brings to "Desert Rose." At other times, the guests serve to ground the music in the familiar, as with Stevie Wonder's harmonica solo on the title tune, or the pedal steel guitar fills (and James Taylor cameo) on "Fill Her Up." It's all for naught, though, without strong songs, and the material on "Brand New Day" is as thin as the arrangements are ornate. You'd think someone as smart as Sting would know better. **
Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard (Warner Bros. 47463)
Jazz musicians sometimes describe improvisation as being either "inside" or "outside." Playing inside means maintaining a close relationship with a song's melody and harmony; playing outside means taking such liberties with time and harmony that the song's original structure may be hard to spot. Pianist Brad Mehldau's playing could best be described as "inside-out" -- that is, he takes enormous liberties with the music but always manages to maintain a recognizable sense of song structure. On his new live album, "Art of the Trio 4: Back at the Vanguard," Meldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy push standards like "All the Things You Are" to the limit without letting us forget what song we're hearing. That's real artistry.
Everything But the Girl
Temperamental (Atlantic 83214)
When Britain's Everything But the Girl unleashed its last album, "Walking Wounded," the disparity between the bruised emotion of the vocals (which traced the course of a shattered relationship) and the cool precision of the electronics (which turned drum 'n' bass into pop) made the music as memorable as it was unique. Naturally, it's hard for "Temperamental" to seem as fresh, but that doesn't mean the music is in any way less affecting. If anything, the songs have a broader emotional palette, which adds depth to Tracy Watt's vocals on the likes of "Blame" and "Downhill Racer," while multi-instrumentalist Ben Thorn adds a tuneful edge to the thumping electrobeats of "Five Fathoms" and the title track. Who says sequels don't work?
Drive Me Crazy
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Jive 01241 41692)
It used to be that the hardest part of keeping up with teen trends was recognizing what was hot before it turned cold. Now, it's dealing with the seemingly contradictory diversity of teen tastes. Take the soundtrack to "Drive Me Crazy." It doesn't take much savvy to see that the same teens who like Britney Spears' remixed "(You Drive Me) Crazy" would also go for the beat-heavy remix of Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." What's more surprising is how easily that taste fits in with liking Barenaked Ladies' "It's All Been Done" or Matthew Sweet's power-poppy "Faith in You." But would even the most callow youth fall for something as drab and prefab as the Donnas' "Keep On Loving You"? Probably not.
* = poor
** = fair
*** = good
**** = excellent
Pub Date: 9/30/99