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Sting

The Last Ship

[Interscope]

∆∆

The red flag went up as soon as advance publicity on Sting’s album revealed that “The Last Ship” would be a song cycle based on the man’s self-penned play of the same name, slated to open on Broadway in 2014. Ugh. Really? A play? That’s cool and all, but isn’t it enough for one of rock’s great songwriters to simply release an album of great rock songs? Apparently not.

As a huge admirer of Sting – particularly his work with the Police and his first four solo albums, all of which skillfully balanced sophistication with an edgy urgency – I’ve been waiting patiently for him to put down the lute, lose the orchestra, and get the whole “collaborating with pop stars a quarter of his age” thing out of his system for what feels like more than a decade. Still a formidable force in concert, Sting’s seemingly endless ambition when it comes to recording projects has been his Achilles’ heel – he is perhaps too talented to play conventional rock music, but not quite talented enough to join the world of “serious music” he so obviously lusts after.

Which brings us to “The Last Ship,” a concept album detailing a life of few opportunities in a ship-building town in the north of England. Sound a tad familiar, Sting fan? That’s probably because Sting already dealt with this subject – far more effectively and less self-consciously, as it turns out – on his stellar 1991 album “The Soul Cages.”

That earlier album balanced its creator’s “Daddy issues” against broader existential concerns, and boasted several notable Sting vocal melodies and deeply moving, evocative lyrics. By Sting’s standards, “The Soul Cages” was understated and subtle. “The Last Ship” is neither of these. It’s consistently heavy-handed, often awkward and always in serious danger of suffocating beneath the weight of its own self-importance.

Because the narrative is paramount here, in Sting’s mind at least, the melodies often strain to accommodate the text. Sting’s insistence on singing in a lower-class Newcastle dialect certainly doesn’t help matters much. Even though he is from there, Sting sounds like a bad actor whose inexperience with accents derails a performance. This being a Sting album, there are inevitably moments of beauty. “Dead Man’s Boots” moves with purposeful stride through an English folk song construction, as the narrator disavows his father’s life and demands something more for himself. “And Yet” has a bit of the creepy majesty of a Sting ballad-gem like “Moon Over Bourbon Street.” “Language of Birds” offers a glimmer of the younger Sting’s gift for stirring, keenly observed metaphor. “Practical Arrangement” touchingly outlines the inner workings of an arranged marriage in the language of the male suitor. This is all B-plus Sting work – the kind of thing he’s done more effectively in the past. Still, one can’t help admiring the craftsmanship behind these songs.

Sting’s talent is always on evidence here, and not surprisingly, he still sings very well. But the music on “The Last Ship” is so completely edgeless in terms of arrangement, production and performance that it teeters on the brink of being soulless far too often.

I keep waiting for Sting to make an album where he stops trying to remind everyone how brilliant he is, and simply stands back and lets it all be. “The Last Ship,” sadly, is not that album.

– Jeff Miers

Blues

Allen Toussaint

Songbook

[Rounder, disc plus DVD]

ΩΩΩ½

With Allen Toussaint appearing last year on the soundtrack of Peter McGennis’ Buffalo film, “Queen City,” what could well be the greatest Toussaint record of all time is this one, just out. Certainly it seems the most personal.

Here is perhaps the great living maestro of New Orleans music – no not an apostle of the Marsalis orthodoxy or a Mac Rebennack preservationist but the composer, producer and performer par excellence of countless classics of Crescent City music. When he moved to New York and started performing at Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, he continued to be a musical celebrant of New Orleans romanticism and rollicking gumbo to such a degree that he looms ever higher with every passing year.

No one is surprised anymore to see him recording with Elvis Costello and Eric Clapton. But this one, you’d have to say, is the most revealing thing he’s done in a long while, if ever.

It is, as he said, just Toussaint and a piano and some songs he wrote, some songs by others he wishes he’d written and even others by people he’s happy he didn’t write. Who is Toussaint? You mean, besides the producer of Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Ernie K-Doe, the Meters, Dr. John, Lee Dorsey and every major R&B glory to pass through New Orleans? Well, he’s also the man who wrote “Mother in Law” and “Working in the Coalmine,” “Yes We Can Can,” “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” “I Like it Like That,” “Southern Nights” and a few bushels of other songs of all complexion and flavor that have danced and romanced inside the American brain for more than 60 years.

He plays terrific piano here, sings in a high courtly voice that, in its way, bespeaks soul as much as Ray Charles’ and gives you a crash course in that fabulous musical place, Toussaint-world.

Whether it’s one of his classics – from “Get Out of My Life, Woman” to “Southern Nights” which turns into the musical wrapping for a spoken autobiographical narrative – or a New Orleans classic from others like the venerable “St. James Infirmary,” you’ll seldom be happier to hear a musician play and sing the news “We Are America.”

Which, as Toussaint sings it, turns into the introduction to “Yes We Can Can.” And some piano playing and rhythmic chatter that turn Toussaint into a one-man mummer’s parade while still seated on a piano bench.

There isn’t an American soul, I don’t think, that couldn’t benefit from listening to a Toussaint disc or watching this set’s accompanying DVD.

– Jeff Simon

Classical

Piotr Beczala

Mein Ganzes Herz

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Lukasz Borowicz, conductor

[Deutsche Grammophon]

∆∆∆½

Richard Tauber, with his monocle and top hat, is a poignant figure from the past. He was one of history’s great tenors, but his voice had a strange sadness. My dad treasured a staticky old record of Tauber singing German folk songs – “Heidenroslein” was one, and the terrible wartime song “Ich hat einen Kamaraden.” Tauber also played Franz Schubert on screen. His vulnerability made him good for the part.

Recently home movies showing the Austrian-born Tauber, who had Jewish ancestry, leaving Germany on a steamer during the Nazi era have turned up on YouTube. It is incredibly poignant to watch the great singer, dressed in the dignified fashions of the era, smiling jauntily on his way to England. He died in 1948, only 56.

Overwhelmingly beloved, Tauber inspired not only singers but composers. It is this facet of his life that the noted Polish tenor Piotr Beczala celebrates. He sings famous arias written expressly for Tauber, topped by Lehar’s “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz,” a melody so famous that Oscar Peterson played it. He sings other songs associated with Tauber including the “Merry Widow Waltz,” “Vienna, City of My Dreams” and the nostalgic song about Vienna from Kalman’s “Countess Mariza.” The brilliant Berlin Comedian Harmonists join in for Romberg’s “Overhead the Moon is Beaming.” Other guests joining Beczala include Anna Netrebko and Daniela Fally.

Beczala is a wonderful tenor, with a strong and clear voice. He used the same London studios where Tauber recorded, and even what might have been the same microphones. In pictures, he even wears a top hat and monocle. This disc may be just skimming the surface of Tauber’s greatness, but it’s a welcome tribute to an extraordinary tenor who gave voice to the soul of his era.

– Mary Kunz Goldman