"I've always wanted to do a collection of my acoustic numbers with the London Philharmonic as you know." ~ David St. Hubbins (Spinal Tap)
The above quote is from the cult classic mockumentary Spinal Tap- a virtual handbook on what NOT to do if you are an aspiring rock star or a well-established icon. In short, with some exceptions (The Moody Blues, The Beatles, Frank Zappa), rock music does an epic fail when it tries to crossover into symphonic music.
The result can be a dilution of both styles or unintended hilarity. Heaven forbid the last one because that's a sure credibility write-off.
Both Sting and Peter Gabriel have released albums with an orchestral "reworking" of their classic material. What is the result?
I must say that both men are in fine voice for men in their 60's. In fact, it's hard to tell the difference between now and say two decades ago. That fact alone is astonishing when you consider that more likely than not, rock voices tend to age rather harshly.
Of the two, Gabriel is far more experimental than Sting. Gabriel's dictum was clear: no guitar, bass or drums. Sting decided to keep a rhythm section and therein lies a big difference.
Sting's approach to Symphonicities is playing it safe, but this is not to say that this album is bad, or out of place within his catalog, nor is it a stylistic mash-up.
The Police rocker "Next to You" is the opening number and somehow it rocks. Not only that, but the strings provide a rhythmic propulsion that gives a slight twist to this punk influenced number.
Other numbers like "Burn For You," "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," and "Englishman in New York" all work really well, but the real surprising gem of this collection is "Roxanne." Who could have possible imagined that this once screechy, tango flavored hit could be a romantic (Yes, I wrote that.) bossa nova?
(Sidebar: According to Andy Summers, Sting originally wrote it as a bossa nova while staying in his sitting room.) Take away the rock drive and the melody soars and Sting nails it. It's a keeper.
With the exception of "Roxanne," we are not given new interpretations of the songs which I think is the only real fault of the album. The songs tend to the feeling of having a less rock edge with some lovely orchestral bits tacked onto them.
Plus, where are all those glorious songs from Ten Summoner's Tales that are begging for an orchestral reworking? In short, more could have been done, but Sting's been soft for many years now.
Peter Gabriel's Scratch My Back was the lead-up to this new album, New Blood. The former being an album of covers and the results were less than what I expected from such a creative mind such as Gabriel's. I have always felt that Gabriel's instincts were golden, but in recent years, I have had a loss of faith in the quality of his music. Scratch My Back suffered from an over-the-top sensitivity in the interpretation of the songs, so my hopes were muted for the new album.
I am pleased to say that most of the songs on this album work for me. "San Jacinto" sounds like it was always meant to be done with an orchestra and Gabriel sounds terrific, belting out the passion and never overdoing the quieter vocal parts.
"Red Rain," "Mercy Street," and "Downside Up," all work very well. "Downside" has one serious issue with form (returning to my earlier comment regarding Gabriel's instincts): the piece ends abruptly with just Gabriel and piano, cutting short the chorus. I was dumbfounded the first time I heard this and thought my CD player had skipped.
Clunkers include "Intruder" where some "Tapish" moments occur and "Darkness" which neither has the intended menace nor coherence.
One problem plaguing this project is the blending of the background vocalists, daughter Melanie Gabriel and Ane Brun. Their voices simply have no compatability. Individually, I prefer Melanie's sweetness to Brun's mousy warble. And don't ask about Brun's performance on "Don't Give Up" because I have no answer for it. PG, where are you?
Ironically, the one piece that Gabriel didn't want to include is the joyful FM staple "Solsbury Hill." Whereas the 80's megahit "In Your Eyes" benefits not at all from the New Blood orchestra, "Solsbury" is a knockout and Gabriel sounds perfect.
Here's my summary, oh music lovers: Unless you are a dedicated fan of Sting and Gabriel, I would suggest taking the cherry picking route of downloading your favs from these albums via MP3.