Thursday, September 30, 2010

Forgotten Music: Sting - Brand New Day

For the past ten years, as the first wisps of fall fill the air, I have changed my listening habits. Packed away are the classic rock anthems that seem to go best when summer's high, out come the more melancholic stuff. The two CDs I most associate with this time of year are David Bowie's ...hours and Sting's Brand New Day.

Coming three years after “Mercury Falling,” Brand New Day (BND) was the return of Happy Sting. For many, the 1996 Mercury Falling was a somber collection. Yes, it had its downer songs—what Sting CD doesn’t?—but his Motown influences certainly made the CD unique among Sting’s oeuvre. You can't miss the lightness with BND. If you’re like me, most of Sting’s music reminds me of seasons and weather. If Mercury Falling was a “winter” CD, BND is full of that late summer, early autmn vibe. Musically and lyrically, Sting was in a sunny, warm, and often inviting place.

Coming mere weeks before the millennial calendar change, Sting channeled the anniversary with his first track, “A Thousand Years.” Not one to shy away from grandiose themes, Sting’s meditative singing is almost a devotion to love and longing. Evoking lovers who exist in some sort of transcendental plane not our own, Sting sings of love lost, regained, and cherished. If the album BND is a summer day, “A Thousand Years” is the darkness before the dawn.

If BND is known for one thing, it’s “Desert Rose” (introduced to the world via the Jaguar commercial). The compelling, fast-paced song is intoxicating in its rhythms, beats, and feel. Cheb Mami, an Algerian vocalist, sings the Arabic lyrics that act as counterpoint to Sting’s English lyrics. Interestingly, when Sting asked Mami if he’d like to sing with him, he sent Mami the instrumental track. Both men listened and wrote essentially the same song. How’s that for synchronicity? (Ba dam ching.) This is a happy, fun song, even if the lyrics speak to the lost. More than one critic, in 1999 and beyond, have noted the over synthesized nature of BND. It’s certainly here in “Desert Rose,” but the layers merely add to the overall effect of what is, in my opinion, the best song on the album. I’d rank it in the top two or three of all time. Here's the video from his live concert.

If there is a secret weapon on BND, it’s trumpeter Chris Botti. For Sting, jazz has always been a major influence on his music (remember Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland in the 80s?) and one of his jazz heroes is Miles Davis. With Botti, playing with a Harmon mute, dancing in and out of the shadows of songs, Sting is essentially playing with Davis’s heir. Botti first shows himself in “Big Lie, Small World,” a nice little Brazilian song. Botti’s trumpet flits in and around the melody, sometimes complimenting a lyric, other times doing his own thing. He closes out the song with a solo that, in 1999, had me scrambling for the liner notes to figure out just who this guy was. On tour, Botti played on almost every tune, bringing nuances to the songs that I don't think Sting knew existed. Brilliant trumpeter who knows that silences and rests are just as important as thousands of notes. I have followed his career ever since.

The remainder of the album has the types of songs you’d expect from Sting’s experiemental mind. “After the Rain Has Fallen,” with its call for a life of adventure and romance, is a story song not unlike “The Pirate’s Bride,” a European-only cut from the previous album. With tongue firmly in cheek, Sting sings from a dog’s POV (for the second time; bonus points if you know the first time*) in “Perfect Love Gone Wrong.” Botti’s all over this song. In a fun treat, when the POV shifts to the dog’s owner, the music not only shifts from its jazzy jaunt to deep funk but the lyrics are rapped in French (by a female vocalist). Yeah, really, but it works. “Tomorrow We’ll See” has Sting singing about a prostitute, bringing out his clever use of vocabulary, rhythm, and rhyming. Sting returns to his country & western vein (that he tried out on Mercury Falling’s “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying”) with “Fill Her Up. It’s a fun, up-tempo tune with steel guitar, fiddle, cat calls and a gorgeous backing choir. If you could say any song is jarring, it’s this one. Not to say it’s bad; it’s just a little off-putting when you’re in music and rhythms that are decidedly European in origin to be jettisoned to Memphis, Tennessee. The message, however, is all Sting: pure optimistic joy at the power of love.

Effervescent, joyous, jubilant, infectious, “Brand New Day” is one those quintessential Sting songs. You can’t help but smile as the song just bops along while Sting tries to get all the words out of his mouth in time and on beat. Stevie Wonder contributes harmonica on the album, something Sting mimics during the tour. As the song fades away, the theme from “A Thousand Years” returns, bookending a fantastic CD. With its exhortations of turning the clock to zero to start a brand new day, it’s no wonder Sting sang this song at midnight of 1 January 2000 in New York’s Times Square.

There isn’t a Sting album I don’t’ like. The first album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is a milestone in my musical evolution as I was introduced to jazz in a big way. "Nothing Like the Sun" and "Ten Sumner’s Tales" are classic examples of nearly perfect pop records that speak to love and world issues. Brand New Day can sit right besides those albums. While it’s not as perfect as those first three, it’s a very good piece of music by one of the more erudite and searching songwriters of our times.


The Brand New Day Era was capped with a concert he performed at his home on 11 September 2001. If you remember, he was to simulcast the concert on the 11th via the internet, with many of the BND songs reworked and reinterpreted. In preparation of this event, Sting had a documentary crew film him and his band. The resulting DVD, “All This Time,” showed the rehearsals and gathering of friends, family, and fans at Sting’s Italian home. We know what they didn’t: the attacks were coming. It’s fascinating to watch artists deal with the violence in their own way. In the concert that night, Sting chose to play a reimagined “Fragile” as a tribute to the victims. Here’s the video. What follows, on the DVD, is proof of the things Sting sings about: the power of music and love to deal with unimaginable grief. As the concert progresses, song by song (truncated though it was by the exclusion of certain stables like “Desert Rose” and “Englishman in New York”) you see and hear this band of musicians and audience members find joy despite sorrow and power through music. As much as the song “Fragile” was dedicated to the victims of the attacks, the rest of the concert was as well. For the reworked songs, the DVD (and CD) is worth the price. For the joy you will get by the concert’s end, that’s priceless.

Extras, part 2:

In 1999, many songs found themselves remixed for discotheques all over the world. Usually, this entailed putting backbeats to the song, no matter the original rhythm. Some of the Brand New Day tracks have that. “A Thousand Years” is different. Bill Laswell takes the nearly six-minute song and *doubles* it’s running time. The opening is orchestral, introducing the theme with Middle Eastern effects subtly playing in the background. Back beats do start and Sting’s wispy voice seemed even more ethereal here. But it’s Chris Botti’s trumpet that get all the glory. The vocals end with over four minutes left, leaving Botti time to play with the melody. One could argue that this version of the song should have made the album.

*1987’s “Conversation with a dog,” available on the “We’ll Be Together” single.

Forgotten Music: September 2010

Welcome to the September 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project. Inspired by Patti Abbott's Forgotten Book Friday series, here we examine music that has fallen off the public's radar or other music that never made a blip. We're doing this on a once-a-month basis, the last Thursday of every month. Aside from my own entry, here's today's line-up:

Paul D. Brazil
Sean Coleman
Bill Crider
Chad Eagleton
Martin Edwards
Randy Johnson
George Kelley
Evan Lewis
Todd Mason
Eric Peterson
Charlie Ricci
Ray Foster

If I have missed your name or got the wrong address, let me know and I'll fix it here and for future months. Anyone can join: just let me know here in the comments section, by e-mail, or in the comments section of my entry that you'd like to join in next month and I'll add you to the list.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Music of Summer 2010

Here in Houston, we've got our first taste of cooler weather. It'll only get up to the mid 80s today. By Texas standards, it's time for a jacket.

As my listening habits naturally follow the seasons, I thought I'd give a rundown of some of my favorite songs from this past summer. I put them all on a CD and have been listening to it during my commutes. See what y'all think.

Haven't met you yet - Michael Buble - If there's a favorite song for the year, this one gets it. Absolutely love this tune.

Nobody's Perfect - KISS - From Sonic Boom, the new CD. This song--and the CD as a whole--hearken back to KISS's original mission statement: to be the Beatles on steroids. This is a good, old-fashioned rock and roll tune and I'm tapping my foot every time.

Someday - Rob Thomas - All this guy does is write great, catchy pop tunes. We should all be so fortunate.

Hey, Soul Sister - Train - No, I haven't grown to hate it. In fact, I've pulled out my guitar and am learning to play it. You know you're old when the reference to Mr. Mister is considered classic.

Tighten Up - The Black Keys - My favorite new "discovery" of 2010. Excellent CD and this is my favorite tune.

American Slang - Gaslight Anthem - The descendants of Springsteen. Put this CD/song on your car radio, roll down the windows, and drive fast.

Anchor - Alejandro Escovedo - New CD by the guy who shared the stage with Springsteen in Houston back in 2008. While I don't immediately like the new CD as much as 2008's Real Animal, it's good to see (let's say it again) good old fashioned rock and roll still being made well.

Mockingbird - Rob Thomas - I could have put most of the songs from his 2009 CD on this list, but left it at my two favs.

Need You Now - Lady Antebellum - I love a good breakup song and this is among the best of the lot. The dueling singers, male and female, put this in a class of its own.

Heartbreak Warfare - John Mayer - Part two of my breakup mini-trilogy. I'm still a sucker for a mix CD with a perfect track order.

Breakeven - The Script - This one grew on me and, through multiple listens, have grown quite fond of it.

The High Road - Broken Bells - You've heard it on some commercial (can't remember the one). One of the few "indie" songs I listened to while the sun blazed down.

This Too Shall Pass - OK Go - I'll admit that the video is what hooked me.

Ishin Densy - Keane - As a child of the 80s, I've grown to dislike a lot of it. However, Keane's new CD channels early 80s Brit-pop to make a new sound for themselves. Later on the CD, they pull out the Rocky theme song.

Southern Pacifica - Josh Ritter - One of the fun discoveries via the Starbucks/iTunes free songs. Really dig the chilled-out nature of this song. Makes me want to get to the beach with my guitar, watch the sun set, lit a fire, and play.

Summer Day - Sheryl Crow - Sheryl does "Motown" with a California vibe. If Ritter's tune is the song I listen to at sunset, Crow's song is the one you listen to during the day while you're driving to the beach.

California Gurls - Katy Perry - Yes, I like this song. The first five or so times, I didn't. The next one hundred, I got to where I really like it.

Modern Day Delilah - KISS - The lead track off Sonic Boom and the opening song at the recent concert here in Houston. KISS was my first, favorite band. With Sonic Boom, they've captured their mid-70s sound. The guitar solo by Tommy Thayer is fantastic.

That's my list. Are there any songs you've loved this past summer? And come back tomorrow for Forgotten Music.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Forgotten Music: September 2010 - Call for Entries

Hello all. This Thursday, 30 September, is the September 2010 edition of the Forgotten Music Project.

It got cool here in Houston, 65 degrees this morning. It'll get up to the 80s, but that's fall down here in Texas. Looking forward to breaking out the music that just doesn't seem to fit when it's upward in the 90s. There's probably some music I've forgotten along the way.

Per usual, I'll post links on Thursday to everyone who posted in August. If you have the time, great. If you can't make it, you can either let me know before Thursday (and I'll remove your name) or not (whereby readers can jump to your blog and read your latest entry and be amazed at your erudition). If you want to join and you haven't posted before, just let me know and I'll get your name on the list for Thursday morning. As usual, I"ll do a summary at the end of the day.

Looking forward to everyone's entries.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 3 vs. the Cowboys

Oh where, oh where did
That keen swagger go? Oh where,
Oh where did it go?

First, goal from the one.
Whole team moves backwards. No guys!
The other end zone!

Houston is my town.
But I don't hate them Cowboys.
Not even today.*

Dallas Cowboys - 27
Houston Texans - 13

*Especially since the Texans basically didn't show up...

Monday, September 20, 2010

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 2 at Redskins

Sixty minute men
Found a way to win. Big Time!
Andre the Giant!

Overtime's the bane
Of the Texans' history.
Except yesterday.

Houston Texans - 30
Washington Redskins - 27 (OT)

Record: 2-0

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Remembering my friend, David Thompson

In the small world of independent bookstores that cater exclusively to mystery fiction, Houston has a jewel in Murder by the Book. For thirty years, the good folks at Murder by the Book have extolled the wonders and magic of mystery fiction. Every one of the folks who have worked at Murder by the Books loves the genre and can talk endlessly about their favorite book, author, or character. But I've never known anyone so exuberant about crime fiction than David Thompson.

What's great about the people who work at Murder by the Book is the diversity of opinion and interest amid the wide spectrum of mystery fiction. While David was a fan of just about any genre, he held a special place in his heart for old school hard-boiled stories. It's one of the reasons why the Hard Case Crime series is prominently displayed very close to the register. Over these past two years as I underwent my own personal education into hard-boiled fiction, David was a guide. He told me his favorites among the Hard Case Crime line and, sure enough, they are among the best of the bunch. More than once I'd stop in the store and ask his opinion about some new titles as well as get his input on older names I'd run across in my crime safari. Just talking with him, hearing him get excited at my journey, knowing that I was reading one of his favorites for the first time, you couldn't help but smile and get excited yourself. I couldn't wait to get home to start reading. His passion was infectious.

Most importantly is that he remembered me. He learned my name, knew my interests, and had suggestions whenever I went to the store. Every now and then, he'd drop me an e-mail or hold a collection of newly arrived used books, giving me first crack. He knew that I had a blog and took the time to read the posts and comment on them. In this modern world where most of us are nameless, walking into Murder by the Book and having David greet me by name meant something. On some days, it almost felt like he was my personal bookseller.

As the day progressed and my thoughts kept returning to David amid my day job deadlines, I grew troubled. I knew David only as a bookseller and fellow mystery book fan. We never went out to a bar after an author signing (although he invited me). We never exchanged Christmas gifts or wished each other well at the holidays. And, yet, the loss leaves a hole in my life. My loss is minuscule to that of his wife, McKenna, and the others in the Murder by the Book family. But it is a loss. I wondered if just being a fan of crime fiction was enough to constitute a friendship. Have I lost a friend?

Leave it to my wife to reveal the truth. When I called her this afternoon to let her know about David's passing, the first words out of her mouth was, "Isn't that your friend at the bookstore?"

Yes, David Thompson was my friend. And boy am I going to miss him.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 1 vs. Colts

First drive, third quarter
got the monkey off our backs.
Can we keep it off?

Indianapolis Colts - 24
Houston Texans - 34

Can't say enough how much I was looking forward to Houston Texans football and this game. I know it's only one game, but boy! What a game!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Book Review Club: Dr. No by Ian Fleming

(This is the September 2010 contribution to Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For more great books, click the link at the bottom of this post.)

In a year where we should be looking forward to the new James Bond film, we have nothing. The next new James Bond novel--written by none other than Jeffrey Deaver--is almost a year away. If you wanted a Bond fix, you could easily break out a DVD or check cable TV but, perhaps, some of the films have staled after repeated viewings. Then I have the remedy for you: read one of Ian Fleming's original Bond novels.

With only fourteen published works, I try to pace my reading of the Fleming stories, not wanting them to end as I enjoy them so much. I've been reading them in published order and this summer, I got up to book #6, Dr. No. Interestingly, Dr. No is the first Bond film and I've seen it enough times to know the general story. What the movie lacks, however, is the uncertainty that permeates the beginning of the story.

The last book, From Russia With Love, ended with 007 getting himself poisoned by Rosa Klebb's hidden shoe blade. As Dr. No opens, Bond is given the "easy" task of investigating the seeming disappearance of the head of the Jamaica branch of the secret service, Strangways. Had you read the books in order, this is a reappearance for Strangways, having helped Bond in the second literary adventure, Live and Let Die. Bond's boss, M, frankly doesn't think Bond is ready and thinks this "rest case" will do 007 some good. No one expects what Bond uncovers.

Like the film, the literary version of Dr. No has a slower pace, not all action-packed like the later movies. Bond actually does some detective work and gets himself quite dirty, another fun trait of the literary incarnation. The novel, written in 1958, is full of the type of hard-boiled language and prose befitting a story of this era. It's a reminder of Bond's true pulp origins.

The movie has arguably the most iconic shot in all the Bond canon: that of Honey Ryder, as portrayed by Ursula Andress, rising from the beach, clad in a skin-tight bikini. Well, she's flat-out naked in the book. You can see why they could not do that scene in the 1962 film. Her backstory is fleshed out and, while its interesting, it isn't exactly fascinating. Bond's repeated reference to her as "girl"--she really is years younger than Bond's thirtysomething--puts a bit of distaste on the tongue. Yes, it's a book of its time, but it still grates.

The big finale in the book is nothing like the film. In fact, as Bond struggled through the Big Scenes in the novel, I kept waiting for the filmed version to show up. It never does, and that is one of the biggest treats about reading Fleming's original books. For every faithful version (From Russia With Love), there is a Dr. No or, more specifically, a Moonraker or Diamonds are Forever.

I can easily recommend any of the Bond books to any fan of 007 or the spy genre in particular. They are great fun and a nice peek in the origins of one of the most famous characters of the 20th Century.

Oh, and that reading pace I mentioned earlier? I enjoyed Dr. No so much that I chucked the one-book-a-year pace out the window and plunged directly into book #7, Goldfinger. But that's for another review...

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