Archive | October 2012

“Synchronicity” Album Review

“Synchronicity” Album Cover.

1) Synchronicity I; 2) Walking In Your Footsteps; 3) O My God; 4) Mother; 5) Miss Gradenko; 6) Synchronicity II; 7) Every Breath You Take; 8) King Of Pain; 9) Wrapped Around Your Finger; 10) Tea In The Sahara; [BONUS TRACK:] 11) Murder By Numbers

8+ out of 10

“The Police” went out in a bang with their biggest selling album, laced with the heaviest amounts of hits-to-songs ratio they ever released. Five of the songs off this album were hits in most territories with most of them being major, major hits that defined the radio of the early 80’s and still live on as some of the most memorable, nuanced and cleverly written songs of the decade.

However, listening to the album now it’s not hard to understand why some writers (such as Mark Prindle) find the album to be the band’s “most boring album.” It also shows a complete domination of the band’s songwriting and sound by the Stingster. Yes, he was always the primary songwriter and ideas guy but the rest of the band seems to bend to his will like never before, especially poor Stewart Copeland who seemingly turns into little more than a session drummer at certain points.

That being said, there is still a lot to like about this first album. Many people consider the first side to be a complete throwaway but I can’t quite agree with that assessment. After all, how can an album that begins with “Synchronicity I” being a complete waste? Yes, the song is dominated by synthesizers in a way that had never been approached before.

The song is not just a complete wash of synthesized wimpiness: they actually create a solid atmosphere while Sting plays a capable bass line, Copeland bashes like he rarely does on the rest of the album and Summers plays an excellent supporting role.

Summers role on the album is one of the most interesting aspects of the album. In many ways, he takes a back seat like never before. Pianos, synthesizers and other keyboards tend to fill out the majority of the songs rhythmically, melodically and atmospherically. However, Summers goes nutty with effects and background noise guitar.

In essence, it is some of his most experimental playing and some of the weirdest guitar playing I’ve heard on a mainstream pop album. It’s a testament to Summers strengths and intelligence as a guitarist that he colors the proceedings so thoroughly while still remaining a background, supplementary element to the album at times.

That said, Summers does contribute the worst song to the album, “Mother.” It’s not a bad song musically and lyrically but Summers takes on an exaggerated singing voice that doesn’t really work that well. It’s a shame because if he’d taken it a bit easier on our ears, it might have been a highlight of the album.

Andy does show off his chops quite well on “Synchronicity II” the most guitar dominated song and the hardest rocker on the song. The lyrics are completely and utterly unintelligible (something Sting later admitted) but it’s a nice piece of hard rocking energy that helps end the first side.

Of course, the first side also had a handful of other songs that many people tend to dismiss. Copeland’s one contribution “Miss Gradenko” is one of his better tunes with an incredibly catchy chorus melody and rather strange lyrics. Probably one of his best songs and although I used to kind of hate it it’s really grown on me in the last few years.

“Walking In Your Footsteps” is highlighted by great electronic drum playing by Copeland (all those “bloop bloop” noises) droning guitar by Summers and a pompous lyrical importance matched with an elegant vocal melody. “O My God” it’s Sting’s worst song on the album: pretty dull in all honesty and probably my second least favorite song on the album. The lyrically flow is rather unengaging and Sting really starts showing off how he was going to suck in a few short years.

And now to talk about the four huge hits of the album (“Synchronicity II” was a relatively decent sized hit as was “Tea in the Sahara”). These were such big songs I feel silly even talking about them. What else can you say about “Every Breath You Take”? The song flows as smoothly as the best song written by the Beatles and features one of the most clever lyrical twists ever. I lament Copeland playing like a drum machine but the song is still very well composed.

“King of Pain” is a bit much Sting agony (“there’s a little black spot on the sun today/that’s my soul up there” is a tad melodramatic) but I love the way the song builds from a simple piano, percussion jam into a Summers lead guitar groove and into an excellent chorus build up. One of the best songs on the album musically.

“Wrapped Around Your Finger” is a bit mushy (those guitar/synth chords at the beginning are a tad fey for my taste) and the lyrics can be awful (“I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” is one of Sting’s worst) but it ends up being soothing and romantic. Much like “Tea in the Sahara” the most generic “New Age” song on the album that still comes through based on Sting’s vocal charisma and the solid lyrics

The CD edition ends with the hilarious “Murder by Numbers” with a jazzy background contributed by Summers and hilarious, out of place lyrics about planning a perfect murder by Sting. Later covered well by Frank Zappa with Sting chanting along.

I hate to give such short shrift to the second side of the album while concentrating more on the first side but most reviewers take the opposite tact: concentrating on the over heard, over played and well known hits while avoiding the potential “filler” of the first side.

And it’s understandable. Although I think the first half of the album is very solid, it definitely has moments that seem more filler-ish than the Police allowed in the past (“Mother” and “O My God” are a pretty rough patch for me) and the more atmospheric arrangements can make the album float through your mind at times.

The big hits on the albums were rightfully hits because they were the best composed songs on the album. Even though the first side is solid and I love listening to it (it’s very weird and seemingly non-commercial) it’s definitely not as well written as the song side. The experimental streak of the first side is less pronounced on the second side but is still there, making it the stronger of the two sides

And this was the last Police album ever after a pretty acrimonious split that made it clear Sting was going to have a huge solo career. It was the last great album he worked on (“Dreams of the Blue Turtles” has its defenders) as he went completely jazz/new age and went completely schlocky. Summers had two solid albums with Robert Fripp while Copeland drifted off into photography. All in all, a solid swan song from a great band.

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“Ghost in the Machine” Review

“Ghost in the Machine” Cover

1) Spirits In The Material World; 2) Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic; 3) Invisible Sun; 4) Hungry For You (J’Aurais Toujours Faim De Toi); 5) Demolition Man; 6) Too Much Information; 7) Rehumanize Yourself; 8) One World (Not Three); 9) Omegaman; 10) Secret Journey; 11) Darkness.

9 out of 10

“Ghost in the Machine” is the fourth album by The Police and is often criticized as the point where the band “loses” it. “Man,” says the Man, “this is where the band brought in SYNTHESIZERS and a fucking HORN SECTION and they totally mellow out and lame it up. It helps set the stage for the EVEN LAMER ‘Synchronicity’ as well as the WORST THING EVER Sting solo career. This band only had two good albums as ‘Zenyatta Mondatta” was only half good.”

Naturally, judging by my rating, I don’t quite agree with this assessment. In fact, I think this album is only slightly less good than “Regatta de Blanc” and is actually a self assured and interesting expansion of the sound of the band. After all, the sound is still dominated by guitars, bass and drums and the band plays just as hard and interestingly as ever.

Plus, it’s not as if the synthesizers and horns are New Wave lame. The horns (all played by Sting) are actually more funky than lame and more minimalistic than overbearing. Of course, the simple horn riffs are obviously played by somebody who JUST learned how to play (Sting) and there is a certain element of annoyance in hearing the same riff over and over again.

In fact, that’s one thing that can be lodged at this album in certain points: a certain repetitiveness that comes from the band hammering a more funky style in some songs. For example, “Hungry for You” seems to go on forever based on a simple but instantly memorable riff and melody. The synthesizers on the song, if they are even prevalent, are so minimal as to not be “lame.”

Let’s go through a few of the songs first. The album is a bit heavy loaded with three of the best songs at the very beginning. “Spirits in the Material World,” “Invisible Sun” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” are three of the biggest hits the band ever had. The new “synthesizer first” approach rears its head on “Spirits in the Material World” with a reggae rhythm based out on the keys instead of the guitar. The riffs are simple but the melodies (especially the chorus) are memorable although some of the lyrics are horrendous even by “Sting-Standards” (“with words they try to jail ya/they subjugate the meek/but it’s the rhetoric of failure” ugh!).

“Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” is also a synthesizer and keyboard based fiesta that still features excellent performances by all band members especially Copeland. The vocal melodies are the best Sting ever cooked up in his career and the “race to the end” ending is magical. Yes, it’s pure pop froth but it’s pop froth of the highest caliber.

“Invisible Sun” is more “New Age” than anything the band had yet done but it features an ominous atmosphere as well as “we care a lot” lyrics that actually seem sincere. The stateliness of the song doesn’t seem faked (as much of Sting’s later stuff does) but seems well deserved by well chosen chords and well composed melodies.

“Hungry For You” shows off the bands new funky style as well as Sting’s awful French. “Demolition Man” rides a simple but addicting bass riff to the point of no return. Sting’s horn arrangements are especially thick and effective on this song while Summers goes apeshit on the guitar. Summers starts coming into his own with this song, going in a more psychedelic and noise based direction as opposed to a funk direction.

“Too Much Information” features more of the simple horn riffs, funky repetitiveness, great guitar and drum works and a very simple but instantly memorable vocal melody (you’ll never get “too much information, running through my head” out of your head).

The first Copeland song follows and its one of his best: “Rehumanize Yourself.” This is one of the hardest hitting songs on the album with another excellent vocal melody, great band interplay (the band was nearly telepathic in that regard by this point) as well as reasonably decent Sting lyrics. Sting also sings this particular song, saving us from Copeland’s slightly flat vocalization style.

“One World (Not Three)” is another funky pop song with simple horn riffs that repeats the same parts over and over while remaining catchy and non-annoying. I’m not sure how the band (especially Sting) gets away with it, but somehow these repetitive melodies and riffs avoid becoming stale and turn catchy and trance-like instead of boring.

Summers turns in his best performance on the next song with his “Omegaman” one of his best songs ever. Not that Summers ever had too many great songs in the first place but this stands above them. Not because it’s really that heavily catchy or memorable but because it’s not annoying. The guitar work is some of his wildest, noisiest and most atmospheric. I especially enjoy his guitar solo here as he doesn’t go wild with finger flashing nonsense but plays with a weird tone that I’ve never heard anywhere else.

The album does go out on a bit of a slower note. So far, the album has had a lot of funkiness and only a slight touch of synthesized New Age style. “Secret Journey” is much closer to solo Sting than anything else yet played by the band. The “mystical” atmosphere created by the song is much closer to being authentic and much more enjoyable. I especially like the simple vocal melody in the chorus as well as the more synthetic atmosphere. The band still plays well but in a more laid back, less severe manner.

Copeland ends the album with “Darkness” another slow, downbeat song which features the great line “Life was easy when it was boring” and a lot of synthesizer based atmosphere and solid melodies and decent arrangements. A bit of a strange way to end the album in all honesty but not unenjoyable. It may be the least accomplished song on the album though.

As is obvious by now, I’m rather fond of the album. It should also be obvious that a lot of the album focuses on a more atmospheric approach and a more repetitive, groove based approach as opposed to the more dynamic, song-oriented approach from the band’s past. This isn’t a huge deal and it isn’t a major negative for the album but it’s clear that the band is better at songwriting than they are at grooving.

Perhaps this tendency to run a simple groove into the ground over and over is indicative of a lack of creativity and a tendency by the band to “rush” albums. However, it works on this album: if the band had always taken this approach, I would have liked them a lot less.

This tendency to run a groove into the ground mixed with the more synthetic and horn based style as well as Summer’s growing experimental guitar ideas turns this album into a curious mixture of “more commercial” and “more experimental.” It’s a weird style and an odd combination that somehow works here.

“Reggatta de Blanc” Review

“Reggatta de Blanc” album cover.

1) Message In A Bottle; 2) Reggatta De Blanc; 3) It’s Alright For You; 4) Bring On The Night; 5) Deathwish; 6) Walking On The Moon; 7) On Any Other Day; 8) The Bed’s Too Big Without You; 9) Contact; 10) Does Everyone Stare; 11) No Time This Time.

9+ out of 10

The singles from “Outlandos d’ Amour” were pretty successful instantly, giving “The Police” a commercial success that many of their more respected and critically acclaimed compatriots struggled to obtain or sustain.

In contrast, “The Police” continued to have more and more commercial success while becoming more and more experimental and textural. A strange contrast perhaps and more of the more interesting success stories of the “New Wave” period. Of course, some argue that their last and most successful “Synchronicity” was a total bland sell-out while others claim it was their best, most experimental album.

All of this build up has a point, I promise. Basically, there are two ways to look at this band: as a complete sell-out band that jumped from a once-promising punk/reggae band into an ego-vehicle for Sting’s pop pretensions and desire for money. Or you can look at them as a cutting edge band that successfully blended light experimental and texture tendencies with a rock and pop sensibility.

1979’s “Reggatta de Blanc” is the first warning sign that this band was not going to be “just” a punk or reggae band. While there are perhaps a few instances of punk speed and reggae styling (especially the Sting-Copeland co-write “It’s All Right for You” and the hard hitting “No Time This Time”) the band expands their sound to include a more atmospheric sound.

The best example of this is the classic, immortal “Walking On the Moon.” In spite of a few of Sting’s worst lyrical gaffes (the first lines “Giant steps are what you take/walking on the moon/I hope my legs don’t break/walking on the moon” are grammatically and logically erroneous) the song creates a unique atmosphere that hadn’t really been heard in the world of rock.

The basic set-up for the song is a simple but memorable Sting bass line which creates the melodic hook. Copeland plays some of the most interesting and intelligent atmospheric drumming I’ve ever heard: his work on the high-high defies description.

And who can’t forget Summers echoey, reverbed “BAM!” guitar chord? An instant atmosphere of moon walking. During the verse, Summers plays a more reggae based rhythm but it doesn’t detract from a song that matches the lyrical message of escapism.

Perhaps the most famous song on the album is “Message in a Bottle” one of the band’s main calling cards and a huge hit. It can be easy to dismiss the silly lyrics here (“seems I’m not alone in being alone” is almost good, though) but what can’t be denied are the constant barrage of great musical ideas. The simple but memorable guitar arpeggios. The way the songs transitions between sections organically and flawlessly. The drive of the song.

Yes, the song is very atmospheric but it’s also a hard driving, instantly memorable pop song. Yes, Sting repeats his annoying tendency of repeating a single phrase at the end of the song until you want to slap him but somehow it works better here than the first album.

The band pulls off another solid instrumental with “Regatta de Blanc.” The song isn’t as “world beat memorable” as “Maskogo Tanga” but it has a great build, amazing energy and is highly atmospheric. The same is true of the semi-instrumental “Deathwish.” Both of these tunes were band co-writes, leading me to believe that they were at the very least semi-improvised.

Copeland steps into his own as a songwriter with three solo-written songs to go with his earlier co-write. His first, “On Any Other Day” shows off Copeland’s rather…blunt sense of humor. It is funny, especially to hear and Copeland harmonizing (flatly) during the chorus. However, the song’s a bit too unmemorable to be a highlight.

“Does Everyone Stare” is perhaps the best Copeland written song on the album. It starts out with a mumbled Copeland vocal supported by cabaret style piano. Later, the band comes in and supports it with an appropriate rock cabaret arrangement as Sting takes over the vocalizations. It may depart slightly from the rather “blue” atmosphere of the album but it’s still a good tune.

“Contact” is a very strange song with deep synth bass swoops during the verse contrasting with the guitar arpeggios driving the “have we got contact?” chorus. Summers plays up a storm on this song, including simple arpeggios and driving rhythm guitar that show off his skills as a rock-solid, in the pocket rhythm guitarist with an almost unlimited knowledge of chords.

Speaking of Summers, his best showcase comes with the reggae ballad “The Bed’s Too Big Without You.” The chords he’s playing are rather simple but he nails that interesting hammered on progression perfectly. He also messed with the beat, throwing in off beat chords. Sting perhaps puts in his best vocal performance on this song. You actually believe him, for once.

The list of ballads and songs ends with “Bring on the Night” another semi-reggae ballad that features pretty sharp guitar playing, excellent singing and more of Copeland’s amazing drumming. The guy isn’t exactly the king of flash but he really knows how to throw in interesting variations on rhythms to keep the song from becoming too boring.

“Regatta de Blanc” is an improvement over “Outlandos d’Amour” because it (mostly) eliminates the weird stylistic detours of the debut album (such as “Sally”) and eliminates any serious songwriting gaffes (such as “Born in the 50’s”) and tightens up the playing to the point of pain. The band plays so tight during the album it almost seems uncanny.

However, the biggest improvement on the album is that it feels like an album. Instead of feeling like a collection of songs, it feels cohesive, atmospheric and engaging. The band uses synthesizers fairly sparingly throughout the album but it often feels like there are is something creating that depressing, despairing mood throughout the album.

The band might throw in more reverb than normal and play a bit slower but the atmosphere comes not from any real production tricks but from the songs and playing. These are moody tunes that all combine to create a moody album. It’s easy to feel blue while listening to this album.

However, the band doesn’t seem to wallow in its own depression and pretensions of atmospheric mood making. They avoid becoming overbearing by making their little depressing pop tunes catchy as hell and avoiding blunt, over-obvious lyrical sadness. The songs are a little sad, yes, but Sting does his best to avoid pure unhinged sadness.

A breakthrough for the band that sets the stage for their critical and commercial success.

“Outlandos d’ Amour” Review

All the girls (and one tenth of the boys) wanted “Outlandos d’Amour” with these three pretty boys.

1) Next To You; 2) So Lonely; 3) Roxanne; 4) Hole In My Life; 5) Peanuts; 6) Can’t Stand Losing You; 7) Truth Hits Everybody; 8) Born In The 50’s; 9) Be My Girl – Sally; 10) Masoko Tanga.

8 out of 10

The Police” debuted in 1978 with this album that was punky enough to place them in the leagues of the tamer, lamer punk bands, reggae enough to please Peter Tosh fans and Sting enough to please any fan of excessive yoga and meditation. It also has a really stupid name and I hate it. It gets 8 out of 10.

All right lets pull back for a moment and examine the above paragraph and its implications. I actually stand by all those statements (except the hating it thing) but still find the album to be a solid, fun but rough debut from a young (ha!) promising (definitely) band. Even if it has Sting in it.

Basically, the band emphasizes the pure rock side of their playing on this album more than on any other album while synthesizing it with more “mellow” reggae sounds. This potentially creates a situation where the sound will please fans of neither style but the band pulls off a nice coup by highlighting the strengths of both punk and reggae and minimizing the negatives.

Next to You” starts the album with wild bashing drums, Sting trying to sound like a punk (he doesn’t fail but he isn’t that convincing) and the guitar and bass synching up in a great guitar groove. The arrangement is a little more diversified when compared to an average punk song but it’s still pretty simple.

It’s really the vocal and guitar melodies as well as the pure energy that make it work: the chorus is an excellent example of Sting’s once promising musical mind. When he wails “What can I dooo oooo…all I want is to be next to you!” backed by Summer’s guitar punctuations, the melody is forever stuck in your head.

Peanuts” is another fairly punky song that seems to have nothing to do with peanuts until Sting inexplicably starts shouting “Peanuts! Peeeenuuuts!” at the end of the song. Not one of the best songs on the album (it’s a bit too shallow melodically) but it has a great drive to it.

Truth Hits Everybody” is another excellent rocker that features hard hitting guitar lines, excellent drumming (listen to Stewart pounding the toms here) with dramatic pauses, slow downs and a frantic rush to the end. The sustained chords during “truth hits everybody…the truth hits everyone” are genius. So is the weird tolling bell just before Summer’s simple, but desperate guitar solo.

The last hard rocking tune is “Born in the 50’s” which is pretty weak: Mellencamp weak. The lyrics are pretentious, generic and arrogant. If Sting was trying to mock his generation’s self-righteous self-entitled attitude he did a good job. However, given his usual level of self involvement and egoism I can only assume (because I want to and because it’s funny) that he is not.

Next, we have the reggae stuff. I’m really reluctant to call most of this stuff reggae. For example, “Roxanne” is actually a tango. And it’s ridiculously catchy with an excellent, swinging vocal melody. The chorus is immortal but it’s repeated 80 times in the song. I find this to be a weakness: doesn’t “Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light! Roxanne…put on the red light!” get a little annoying after awhile?

So Lonely” is much more reggae but still has a punchy rock chorus, with the title “So Lonely” repeated about a gagillion times.

And that’s what makes this band great: they combine reggae and punk in a way that feels organic. The chorus (as well as the slow down and the rave up at the end) help create dynamics that expand the song beyond its repetitive reggae rhythm and its generic guitar racket.

Hole in My Life” is the closest to pure reggae on the album with a relaxed vibe and slightly desperate feel. But what’s up with that weird piano sound at the end of the song? Or the excellent vocalization and variations in the melodies. Not my favorite song on the album but solid nonetheless.

Can’t Stand Losing You” is a song I sometimes get confused with “Roxanne” for the first few bars. However, I like this song better: the lyrics are more interesting, the weird mid-section features odd synthesizers and Sting going “oh!” and it features the line “I guess you’d call it suicide/but I’m too full to swallow my pride” which is ridiculous.

It also has a really repetitive chorus which uses only the words in the title. That’s true of just about every song. Sting tries to get around it by varying the vocal melodies with different intonations and phrasing and it works a lot of the time. It probably works best at the end of this song because it’s such a desperate song and the repetitions feel more like desperate pleas than desperate attempts by Sting to make his song over two minutes long.

I suppose you could say “Roxanne” is desperate too but the chorus is more annoying to me phonetically.

Following the slight gaffe of “Born in the 50’s” we have a major gaffe in the Sting/Summers co-written “Be My Girl – Sally.” The first part is obviously a Sting invention: it has a great guitar groove and a nice vocal melody that gets repeated over and over again as do the lyrics “won’t you be my girl” in as many possible variations as Sting can manage.

However, Summers decided to throw in a tune called “Sally” which is…odd. It’s a lot of semi-dissonant piano playing backing Summers reciting (as Britishly as possible) a poem about falling in love with a blow up doll. It’s played for laughs but it’s somehow more laughable in a bad way played for laughs than when “Roxy Music” played it straight in “Every Dream Home a Heartache.” There, the song was desperate. Here it’s stupidly goofy. “Be My Girl” does come back to help create the sense that the song is complete but it doesn’t help much.

Masoka Tanga” is a nice bass led jam (where Sting really shows off some awesome chops. No sarcasm, he plays his ass off) that has a semi-world music feel to it as Stewart bashes his drums and Andy keeps a simple rhythm. Sting intones a bunch of nonsense that he apparently came up with while hypnotized (yeah right) and it’s a fun, funny and energetic way to end the album.

I hate describing every song this way but on an album as filled with solid and diverse tunes as this, it’s hard not to go into that much detail. The band shows off a lot of songwriting strength and playing skills but were still pretty rough.

The choruses are way too repetitive often to the point of annoyance (a problem that always plagues Sting) the songwriting was a bit iffy (seriously, I can’t stand “Born in the 50’s” or “Be My Girl-Sally”) and the band seems a bit unsure playing pure rock and roll.

Plus, it’s called “Outlandos d’ Amour.” UGH! 0 out of 10!