Review: Sting's Latest Album Is His Best Since 1996

VIDEO: Sting Talks New Gig as Broadway Composer, Lyricist
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This week Sting sort of returns to his rock roots, Sleigh Bells get more melodic on its fourth album, Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis goes solo as Sad13, singer-songwriter Matt Costa scores a documentary, indie-rock band Matt Pond PA celebrate Winter and rap group The Black Opera give us a State Of The Union of sorts for “African America.” It’s another strong week of diverse releases as we get closer to the end of the year.

PHOTO: Sting - "57th & 9th"
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Sting’s “57th & 9th” (Deluxe Edition) ****

Put quite simply, “57th & 9th” is Sting’s best album since 1996’s under-rated “Mercury Falling.” I’ve wanted Sting to explore his rock side again for a very long time. While this isn’t a pure rock record, there are some appealing, crunchy moments on here. “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” effectively recalls his work with The Police and provides him with his biggest hit-contender in a long time. The same goes with “50,000” which was written in tribute to David Bowie and Prince and would fit decently next to a classic like “King Of Pain.” On “Petrol Head,” Sting works a blues-rock vein that is surprisingly tough. With a different arrangement, you could imagine it working similar territory as “Demolition Man.” On the deluxe edition he even delivers a live, slightly bluesy version of the early Police highlight “Next To You.”

It’s tempting to call this album a return to Sting’s punk roots, but if you go further in the playlist, there are also some strong ballads. The second half of the record is strikingly quiet when compared to the first.

This isn’t quite the powerhouse album it could have been but it’s a very strong reminder that Sting is indeed one of pop’s finer master-craftsmen. To many, “57th & 9th” showcases the return of the version of Sting that has been missing for some time. After years of wandering and experimentation, it is good to have him back.

Focus Tracks:

“I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” This is most definitely among Sting’s best solo singles to date. It’s an eye-opening return to form of the grandest kind and proof that he still has a hungry side. This track is insistent and infectious in all the best ways.

“50,000” This is a ballad of sorts but it still balances a feeling of sadness with a spiky, building energy. Again, this is another strong tune with a lot of potential.

“Heading South On The Great North Road” This track from the album’s quieter half shows Sting’s classically-minded side delivering a tune that sounds like a traditional folk song for the ages. While this more literary side in this case probably won’t lead to radio spins, it still shows Sting at his songwriting best.

PHOTO: Sleigh Bells - "Jessica Rabbit"
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Sleigh Bells’ “Jessica Rabbit” ***

“Jessica Rabbit” is Alexis Krauss’ and Derek Miller’s fourth Sleigh Bells record. With each collection they have gotten closer to a pop-driven realm, getting further away from the sound of their admittedly influential debut album “Treats.” Throughout this set, as Krauss has become a more confident pop vocalist, there are still moments between her and Miller that clash sonically. This is no doubt that these moments are there on purpose.

This set (while still uneven) definitely shows some extreme growth from their last album, “Bitter Rivals,” with targeted focus on melody and Krauss singing with much more force than ever before. Sometimes they hit some rough spots, like the clunky and forced rocker, “Throw Me Down The Stairs,” but even that song is light years away from the scraping mood “Riot Rhythm” or “Infinity Guitars” which got by merely on mood and thunderous bombast.

The duo go for pop gold on the tremendous standout “I Can’t Stand You Anymore” which easily replaces “Comeback Kid” as their strongest song to date. It’s as if the angry cheerleading squad found their softer side. Similar pop possibilities can be found with “I Can Only Stare,” which has some intriguing quieter textures.

The awkward harshness returns during the chorus of “Rule Number One,” although the spoken-word “two tornadoes…” section of the song is quite cool. If only that energy was maintained. Elsewhere, opener “It’s Just Now” is oddly marred by a topsy-turvy tempo-shift that sounds like an accident. But it isn’t all bad. “Hyper-Dark” has some winning, trippy edges and “Baptism By Fire” is an airy ballad, fueled by a pounding beat.

From a musical perspective, this is Sleigh Bells’ strongest effort to date. There are real, fully-formed songs here. They continue to inch toward clarity. There are also a few, strong possible hits here. Krauss and Miller are finding a new balance and unleashing their pop potential. If they continue in this direction and manage to still keep elements of the sonic rage, they will be unstoppable.

Focus Tracks:

“I Can’t Stand You Anymore” This song is the set’s one killer standout and it demands repeat listens. It has a dynamite chorus and sounds like a classic eighties hit getting a metallic makeover. This is a huge, welcome surprise. It really deserves heavy “Top 40” rotation.

“Hyper Dark” This finds Sleigh Bells exploring their quieter, trip-hop side, coming off like a harder-edged cousin to Phantogram. It’s a sound that they should explore further.

“I Can Only Stare” This dance-floor-ready number gets more intriguing and catchy with repeated spins. It is a clear standout.

PHOTO: Sad13 - "Slugger"
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Sad13’s “Slugger” ****1/2

For some reason a lot of the pre-release articles around Sadie Dupuis’ solo effort as Sad13 want to emphasize the fact that this is her “pop” album. The truth is, “Slugger” just sounds like a lo-fi version of Dupuis’ band Speedy Ortiz with some keyboards and hip-hop beats thrown in for good measure. This is still very much an indie-rock album, owing a great debt to people like Liz Phair, Tracy Bonham and Veruca Salt. In fact, if you can imagine what Phair’s glossy (wrongly, often criticized) 2003 self-titled record might sound like without the autotune and the slick Matrix production, you might get the idea of this album’s sound.

If you liked “Foil Deer,” last year’s standout album from Speedy Ortiz, odds are you’ll really also enjoy this album, as well, with its lyrical references to positive female friendship. Songs like the biting “Hype,” and the singles “Get A Yes” and “<2” all sound like funhouse-mirror versions of Speedy Ortiz records. They are obviously from the same well-spring and Dupuis continues to write intelligent, observational songs. Will this album appeal to a wider pop audience? Maybe. But it isn’t any better or worse than her work on “Foil Deer” or its 2013 predecessor “Major Arcana.” If this album gets more attention it will be strictly because it fits (slightly) more into the narrow, modern pop landscape. It was probably a shrewd move of Dupuis to name her solo project after her Twitter handle.

This collection also has some key surprises. Rapper Sammus makes a strong appearance on closer, “Coming Into Powers” while “Krampus (In Love)” provides a twisted spin on the Christmas classic “Here We Come A Wassailing.”

As with her previous work, “Slugger” shows Sadie Dupuis as a writer and performer to watch. She maintains her nineties-style sensibilities while creating her own world of handcrafted, home-made “pop.” This is a record that is equally unusual and enjoyable, effectively continuing her creative momentum.

Focus Tracks:

“Hype” This is the grittiest, punk-iest song on the set, complete with an humorously inappropriate chorus. It is the strongest track on a solidly likable set. Placed near the end of the record, this is where the album’s true greatness really gets cemented.

“Fixina” The minor-key twists of this song sound like Speedy Ortiz with less guitars as Dupuis confesses, “I still love you like a narcotic.”

“Get A Yes” With its lyrical nod to “Say Yes To The Dress,” this is the closest this set gets to bubblegum territory, but again, there are some intriguing musical turns that give the track more sonic depth.

PHOTO: Matt Costa - "Orange Sunshine (Music From The Motion Picture)"
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Matt Costa’s “Orange Sunshine (Music From The Motion Picture)” ***1/2

Singer-songwriter Matt Costa takes a stab at scoring here, providing the soundtrack to “Orange Sunshine,” a documentary about a group of drug-smuggling, surfing, California hippies in the sixties. Given the psychedelic bend of his under-rated 2010 masterpiece, “Mobile Chateau,” Costa seems like an appropriate choice to handle these scoring duties and he coats this record with enough faux sixties fuzz to provide a rather plausible soundtrack. There’s even a bit of vinyl scratchiness thrown into the fantastic “Call My Name.”

If you are looking for a traditional album from Costa, you won’t find it here, even if this is his first offering in three years. These are 17 sonic snippets spread across 38 minutes. Sometimes you get full songs where Costa sings, but most of the time this album offers pieces of instrumental score. You get the warmth of “Mike and Carol,” the Brubeck-meets-the-surf vibe “Oran Jazz Sid” and the blues-rock of “Soul Full Of Orange,” This is obviously a very druggy sounding collection given the film’s subject and Costa even explores some Indian-flavored sounds on “Orange Guru.”

This collection doesn’t have anything quite as memorable as Costa’s most notable hit, “Cold December,” but then again, its main point is to provide the film with a score, not to produce hits. Costa proves here that he is an adept, forward-thinking musician who is able to work some thought-provoking retro-sensibilities into something new.

While the score to “Orange Sunshine” may not quite be the record that most of Costa’s fans are craving, this is still a cohesive and worthy entry into his discography.

Focus Tracks:

“Call My Name” If Costa ever releases a best-of, this should be the key contribution from this collection. It is under two minutes but is impossibly infectious and timeless.

“The Fuzz” With a jazzy swing, some great guitar and horn-section work, this is a vintage-sounding bit of score. The drum solo alone is quite notable.

“Sit With Timothy” This Leary-referencing number is hazy, psychedelic gold.

PHOTO: Matt Pond PA - "Winter Lives"
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Matt Pond PA’s “Winter Lives” ****

Matt Pond PA quickly follow-up last year’s glossy, excellent, pop-driven “The State Of Gold” with the seasonably appropriate “Winter Lives.” Pond has always done best with introspective material and this collection beginning with the tremendous opening track, “In Winter” brings to mind warm fireside moments, looking out the window at the falling snow. There’s a nostalgic feeling throughout, highlighted by “The Glow,” which reflects on youth. In a way, this is Pond’s take on a holiday-themed record without the overt holiday theme. This is a collection held together by a singular thread. Lost memories of icy nights and times with family. It’s an often delicate set that makes the most of the instrumentation. There is a bit of a rise in the production on the cover of Cocteau Twins’ “Fotzepolitic,” but this album is extremely different from “The State Of Gold” which sounded more like it was attempting to get the attention of modern radio. Mostly this set finds the band returning to signature territory, giving another spin to the thoughtful, adult side of emo.

There are still possible hits here. You can imagine the strumming “Force Of Nature” getting licensed in places. The same can be said for “Whoa” which calls back to an older folk tradition and sounds instantly familiar.

“Winter Lives” is yet another strong release from Matt Pond PA and it shows that Pond and his band of musicians are constantly evolving without a loss in quality. This collection should provide a fitting soundtrack as we enter the colder months.

Focus Tracks:

“In Winter” It is a rather warm November in New York, but I can attest that this opener perfectly sets the mood and ushers a colder feeling in an endearing way. It’s an instantly magnet offering.

“Force Of Nature” There has always been a feeling that this band has been on the cusp of having a major crossover hit and this slowly building ballad has a very wide appear as it rises to a running pace.

“Winter Lives” The string-section ushers in a complex chamber-pop vibe. Again, this song possesses an unforced building energy.

PHOTO: The Black Opera - "African America"
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The Black Opera’s “African America” ****

The latest album from hip-hop group The Black Opera is an indictment of modern America, questioning why there seem to be different laws and societal responses for black and white citizens. This is an often pointed album but it joins a long (and growing) list of hip-hop records that question what it means to be black in 2016, confronting the double-standards head on.

On the title-track members Jamall Bufford and Magestik Legend question their roots and what they are supposed to do when they don’t feel safe at home in their own country, suggesting a separation between European and “African America.” The sense of not knowing one’s roots is a recurring theme.

This whole album is an extended thesis on frustration with inequality, from the ways crimes are prosecuted to job availability. It’s a haunting reality. “Pardon” has the verse, “What’s the definition of a good black man? / One strike? / Two strikes? / Reformed? /No speeding tickets / No weed in the glove compartment. / Police act like I’m less than human. / But acting godly won’t protect me from persecution. /They give a man an Oscar for playing a slave. / Do they want that Chuck D or the Flavor Flav?” The tiny microcosm of these few lines only scratch the surface.

The picture painted here is a dire one, but like Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly” and Common’s “Black America Again” it is peppered with bits of optimism in the face of adversity. “Young Ones” has the lines “Don’t let them stop you / Keep your head up.” After all, the main focus on this record is about maintaining respect for one’s self in a world that subliminally and (sometimes overtly) tells you still that you aren’t equal.

Historically-speaking, the string of hip-hop records that have been released this year and last year are essentially giving voice and awareness to a growing protest. These records may be too political for some, but they point out parts of our history as a society that have been too often shoved under a rug.

“African America” as an album is meant as a wake-up call. Given the stories of injustice that often pepper the news and divisiveness of this past presidential election with issues of both racism and sexism, this may be the kind of record we need. Like it or not, this is the soundtrack to a brewing revolution. Definitely some food for thought.

Focus Tracks:

“Pardon” This is among the album’s most memorable tracks, emphasized by the minor-key acoustic guitar-riff that serves as the song’s backdrop.

“African America” This title-track shows a disconnect between the American vision we’ve all been sold and the everyday reality that some people experience. This song makes a plea for an equal playing-field.

“Black Woman Is God” The lyric “Martin Luther King didn’t know a thing about the nightmare we’re living in now” is likely to raise some eyebrows. Here, the stories of strife are also used to give a nod of respect to black women.

Next week: New music from Bruno Mars and more.

A Tribe Called Quest also released a new album recently. Missed that review? Get it here.

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