Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sting 10: Songs From The Labyrinth

Never one to miss a chance to remind you just how much smarter he is than you are, Sting’s second album of the millennium was in the classical vein. Songs From The Labyrinth consists solely of music written by English Renaissance composer John Dowland, performed entirely on lutes. This is hardly an excavation of buried treasure, as Dowland was already well known to connoisseurs; fellow New Wave refugee Elvis Costello had already performed, recorded and released some pieces several years before Stingy got around to it.
Wisely, he lets special guest Edin Karamazov handle the fretwork, and indeed, the pieces with no vocals are the least distracting. Sting himself plays lute in the background on one interlude, and in duet on another longer piece. When he does sing, and he does, he does so in his imitable style, up close and back-of-the-throat nasal. This approach was great for something like his cover of “Spread A Little Happiness”, but gets a bit trying here. “Can She Excuse My Wrongs”, for instance, would be much better served with a softer vocal, or at least smoothing out all the sharp inhales. As the first track with a vocal, it sets a tone for the album at large.
Because many of the pieces were originally written for ensembles, we’re treated to multiple Stings singing in harmony. “Fine Knacks For Ladies” is one example of this overkill, but will certainly influence any number of college a cappella groups to tackle it.
And because the album is designed to be something of an aural biography, every three tracks or so he reads excerpts from a letter, written by Dowland, in his breathiest BBC accent, accompanied by stock sound effects. It doesn’t help. (One track’s music is credited to Robert Johnson—not, need it be said, the blues legend, but a Dowland contemporary.)
As might be expected, Songs From The Labyrinth topped the classical chart, as many crossovers tend to do upon release, before sharply typically tailing off in sales. It’s since been reissued with a variety of bonus tracks, some of which stem from a DVD documenting the rehearsals and live performances. If the listener is not put off by Sting’s attempts at vocalizing these pieces, rest assured there are other, more pleasing recordings by more apt voices out there. For example, John Potter, formerly of the Hilliard Ensemble, has released several albums under the moniker The Dowland Project; those are worth sampling, as is anything by the Hilliard Ensemble. Meanwhile, this writer plans on checking out other recordings by Edin Karamazov.

Sting Songs From The Labyrinth (2006)—2

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