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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Review: Sting - If On A Winter's Night...

Sting - If On A Winter's Night...
2009, Deutsche Grammophon

Sting has always been something of a musical chameleon, from his days fronting 1980’s Punk-gone-Rock heroes The Police through his Jazz, Pop and Electronic phases. Sting has emerged in the 21st century as a classical musician with a predilection towards old English madrigals, church songs and Bard’s tales. For the holiday season Sting holds forth with one of the most unusual and intriguing holiday albums of the year. If On A Winter’s Night... offers up a couple of original tunes, and re-workings of a few songs Sting has done before, but plants itself firmly in the Renaissance and Victorian eras musically.

If On A Winter's Night... opens with Gabriel's Message, a song Sting originally recorded for the A Very Special Christmas series back in the 1990's. This version has something more of a madrigal feel, making use of harmonies in both the vocals and instrumentation to accent the simple arrangement. Soul Cake commemorates the practice of handing out Souls (or Soul Cakes) on All Souls Day to children who would come knocking for them. The belief was that each cake eaten would free a soul from purgatory. Soul Cake makes use of the chorus from Peter, Paul & Mary's A Soalin' as well as the traditional "Christmas Is Coming". Sting's rendition of John Joubert's There Is No Rose Of Such Virtue is consistent with the fuller arrangement for chorus and is an interesting introduction for American audiences to the Anglican choral classic. The rendition offered here is a bit muddied at times in the vocal harmonies but is still quite a pleasant listen.
The Snow It Melts The Soonest is a British Minstrel's tune that dates at least to the early 19th Century. It has an achingly beautiful and sad melody line that Sting brings to life while keeping its antiquarian feel. Christmas At Sea is an original song with the feel of an ancient sea chantey. This tune would not have been entirely out of place on The Soul Cages, although there is definitely more of a classical feel here. Sting's reading of Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming is a moving one. This song became a Christmas staple in the Anglican church but is of German origin. The original writer is unknown, as the song dates to the 16th Century, but has been used by Christian Churches around the world since its first publication in 1599. The Burning Babe, based on a poem by Robert Southwell wants to bridge the gaps between British Madrigal, Jazz and Celtic styles. The song feels like it wants to be so many things and may become a bit muddled in all of the creative energy swirling around it.

Sting retools The Hounds Of Winter (from Mercury Falling) in an acoustic arrangement that wants to be quasi-classical but isn't, quite. It's a compelling arrangement nonetheless, but loses some of the intensity in favor of a more lyric translation that works nearly as well. The chorus still has the same pop and zing and the original, but the first verse feels a little lost at times. Sting digs deep into choral history for Cherry Tree Carol, actually a collection of three separate tunes as collected by Francis James Child. The song dates to the early 15th Century, being rumored to have been sung at The Feast of Corpus Christi. Sting's rendition is very close to the most popular of arrangements, going with the classic sound that will be most familiar to listeners who know the song. Lullaby For An Anxious Child Sting originally recorded for I Shall Be Released. Once again he gives it a semi-classical facelift, actually improving on the originally recording. Sting revives his long-time affection for Kurt Weill with Hurdy Gurdy Man, an original tune that sounds as if it were very inspired by Weill's style. This is the most interesting new tune Sting has written in some time, having a dark, melancholy feel that's inescapable. Sting closes with You Only Cross My Mind In Winter, marrying a J.S. Bach melody to Sting's lyrics for a gorgeous original that isn't entirely in line with the rest of the album but isn't too far separated from it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Sting after Songs From The Labyrinth, but If On A Winter's Night... is a good listen. Sting doesn't have the lower range to hit some of the notes cleanly that he's laid out for himself here, and that can be distracting, but in general it's a strong album. Sting serves no musical master other than his own personal muse, and expectations are useless, but it would be nice to hear him get back to something a bit more in the popular realm. Nevertheless, If On A Winter's Night... is a great eclectic holiday album that beats the slew of cookie cutter Christmas albums that hit the market each Fall/Winter.

Rating: 3.5 Stars (Out of 5)

You can learn all about Sting at You can purchase a copy of If On A Winter’s Night... in Sting’s web store, or you can download the album from iTunes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another one of Sting's 'chameleon'-like projects!