Opening with the sounds of lightly plucked strings like the stready drip-drip of percolating coffee, Josh Groban’s “Brave” urges us to surrender to a new day, smiling as we refuse to run away from things which simply “can’t be so.” Another brilliantly bombastic single from the patron saint of modern classical pop, Groban sets high expectations for his upcoming sixth studio album All That Echoes, due out Feb. 5 on Reprise Records. Here’s hoping the rest of the album meets the challenge, because “Brave” on its own is stadium pop music of the highest order.
Sting is no stranger to the world of classical music, or accusations of being, next perhaps to Bono, rock’s most pretentious artist still touring. But on Symphonicities he attempts to do the unthinkable: craft a fun album by digging into his vault of classics and reworking them in a classical bent. To many, this may verge on sacrilege, but it’s surprising how frequently the concept works. Though some of the songs don’t really need the classical treatment, it’s impressive how much fun it seems Sting is finally having with these songs, and the album’s more of a “grower” than I ever would have expected.
The songs which fare the best are classics from when he was still a member of the Police. “Next To You” maintains the song’s energy while amply focusing on the wall of strings and allowing Sting’s voice to ring through while providing serious momentum to open the album. “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” dares to build from quiet strings and winds into a lushly orchestrated example of why The Police were able to so revitalize radio in the early ’80s. “Roxanne” also fares well, though it’s one of the tracks on the album which may be most likely to leave purists wondering why he’d want to mess with what was already such a good thing. After repeat listens, however, the classical arrangement successfully brings out the haunting, obsessive nature of the song.
Other highlights on the album include “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” which really improves with the bulkier orchestral arrangement compared to the more bare-bones interpretation from T Bone Burnett’s Cold Mountain soundtrack. “We Work The Black Seam” digs into Sting’s 1986 stunning jazz album The Dream of the Blue Turtles with an impressive arrangement of one of the man’s strongest politically-motivated songs. The plight of ’80s coal miners in England feels like it could be perfectly laid atop the current suffering of the Gulf’s downtrodden fishermen in a post Deepwater Horizon era. If you’re going to spend a dollar on just one song from the album, you can’t make a stronger case than for “We Work The Black Seam.”
The album’s biggest flaw, however, is that it dares to leave off it’s namesake’s strongest songs. Where is “Synchronicity II,” which could have been dramatically reworked on this effort to add a little more rock heft? Or “Every Breath You Take,” which, if not slavishly remade, could have been the album’s strongest number and a ready-made single?
That, and the fact that the album’s second half suffers from serious drag, makes this an album that can be easily recommended for those who are familiar with Sting’s entire career, but which could prove daunting for those who wanted to hear more of his better-known songs given the classical treatment. Still, this is the most fun Sting has had in the last 10 years.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.
It’s a strange moment in the music world when the trends shift from big-time hip-hop and pop releases to classical pop. Two recent releases from artists as different as night and day have arrived to show us that the exact same concept can be tackled in completely different ways while finding similar ways of both hitting and missing the mark. And while Sting’s Symphonicities had song selection strong enough to make it a recommended listen, young violin virtuoso David Garrett struggles more with finding his identity, and that makes his new album Rock Symphonies harder to love.
Garrett, the self-proclaimed “David Beckham of the classical scene” (who AMG dubbed more appropriately as “the Eddie Van Halen of bowed instruments”) has made a relatively successful crossover into the U.S. market with his ridiculously over-the-top cheesy renditions of popular songs, taken from their natural pop landscape and placed in the world of “classical” by arranging them with a symphonic bent and then ramping the energy level up to 11.
It worked like a charm on his reworking of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” which came out prior to Jackson’s death, and his album Rock Symphonies continues in the same vein. Garrett earns his listeners with the album’s opener, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which does its damndest to pay respect to Cobain by showing just how much impact that song can have in any setting. The album also includes a beautifully rendered cover of “Live and Let Die” which is well worth a purchase on its own.
But he gives too much of a not-so-great thing when he piles on “November Rain,” “Walk This Way” and “80s Anthem,” giving us less variety than one might expect. Avoid “The 5th” like the plague though, another attempt to make Beethoven rock when disco already murdered the concept in the ’70s. And a cover of “Master of Puppets” by Metallica just showcases how much better that song was handled on the band’s own S&M.
It’s a fine line Garrett risks walking, but you never know if he might wind up inspiring a new generation to want to rock out with instruments they may never have considered to be “fun.” What we’ve got on Rock Symphonies are a few solid songs that show his amazing abilities as an expert of his instrument, while the rest flounders, sputters and begs for a stronger sense of musical direction. Maybe he’ll find that on the next album out.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.