Music

Sting: Symphonicities

Sting takes some old, familiar songs for a stroll down classical lane -- and many of them don't sound that different.


Sting

Symphonicities

Label: Deutsche Grammophon
Release Date: 2010-07-13
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"It's good to be Sting. I do feel a little bit like Louis XVI, sometimes."

Sting admitted this on 60 Minutes II back in 2003, and he's right. Sting has the luxury of a tolerant audience, and regardless of what you think of his recent activity, you have to admit that he must be doing something to keep his fans happy. In the span of almost ten years, his devoted flock have persevered through two adult-contemporary albums produced by Kipper, a collection of Elizabethan lute music, a gloomy package of obscure Christmas (i.e. winter?) carols, and now a brand new set of orchestral arrangements of Police and Sting songs called Symphonicities. It's hard to believe there was a full-fledged Police reunion in the middle of it all, but Sting has always been a stubborn man. His desire to do what he wants lands somewhere between his '70s punk manner and that of being a premature old codger. But to be fair, and to give some perspective, Symphonicites is probably one of Sting's least surprising projects that doesn't qualify as some sort of pop-rock. His songs, especially the ones from his solo career, fit the symphonic format so easily that it's almost kind of surprising he hasn't done this kind of thing before.

So much of Symphonicities takes the conservative route that it ends up sort of passing the time rather than stirring the soul. Sting's voice remains as flawless as it was at any point of his 30-plus-year career, yet he never uses it as an instrument to help the new arrangements take flight. Unlike Bono or Roger Daltrey, the fact that he's kept his vocals intact gives him the opportunity to do what he wants with it. Instead, all of the tunes are sung with little variation from their origin. A great deal of the music follows suit too. Even though it's not the guitar-bass-keys-drums combo you are used to hearing, the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio, spend a majority of the time just emulating the things that have come before -- in a frustratingly faithful way. You could almost say that "Englishman in New York" and "When We Dance" sound no different from their counterparts, though I imagine the arranger would have some choice words with you.

But since I use the word "majority", there is fortunately a minority at work here. The first 23 seconds of "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" give little hint as to what song is about to happen. The harp ostinato draped over top of the ascending oboe lines offer some foreshadowing after the listener returns to it, but it does actually have the potential to fool you at first. The same goes for the following track "I Hung My Head" which originates from 1996's Mercury Falling. The opening seconds make it sound like Debussy rose from the dead, ran into the studio, dropped some staff paper scribblings on all of the music stands, then left. At the 18 second mark, the song starts up sounding much like its ancestor. But just when you thought things had returned to easy-listening normality, the wordless interlude escorting the listener into the last verse lassos in an abrupt modulation, causing one to briefly lose a sense of origin thanks to the song's 9/8 meter. "We Work the Black Seam" from The Dream of the Blue Turtles plays the melancholy card with even more confrontation, reminding everyone of the harm of the "nuclear age" that buries its "waste in a great big hole".

At the same time, the slow string exploration of the old Police tune "Roxanne" seems to want it both ways. The instrumentation itself alternates between sparse and lush, the tempo slows down considerably, and the falsetto chorus is done away with entirely. The melody remains intact though, almost insuring listeners that, despite whatever differences exist in the arrangement, Sting and the ensemble won't stray that far. The other song representing the Police's first album is "Next to You", remaining nearly unchanged. Instead of power chords from Andy Summers, you get chugging cellos.

But if Symphonicities isn't entirely treated as a chance to reinvent past songs, it's partly a chance to resurrect Sting's obscurites. "The Pirate's Bride" and "The End of the Game" were left off of Mercury Falling and Brand New Day respectively, and according to Sting fans, their exclusion was undeserved. So to the b-side collectors' delight, they both make appearances on Symphonicities. "I Burn For You", apart from being covered by many, seems only to have had previous life on a live album. And disappointingly, the inclusion of some rather chintzy sounding rhythm gives the impression of the orchestra being a grafted-on afterthought. And although Alison Krauss sang one of the few recordings of "You Will Be My Ain True Love" for the Cold Mountain soundtrack, we are treated to an identical reading that belies any of kind of notion of "interpretation".

So all told, about two-thirds of Symphonicities feels like a missed opportunity. The results are not bad, but entirely too safe. This should come as a surprise to no one, considering how "classical" renditions of pop music tend to be overly flat-footed and not especially risky. This is too bad, considering Sting's trusting audience. He has the tools and the songs to make his past morph into something else entirely, purely for art's sake. Yet he only goes a fraction of the way. The rest can be filed under; pretty but innocuous.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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