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New On Disc Roundup: Toad The Wet Sprocket, Sting, Stone Temple Pilots

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Toad The Wet Sprocket New Constellation (Abe's Records) - I must say, when Toad The Wet Sprocket announced their return after a sixteen-year hiatus by releasing the title track of their album this past Summer, I was disappointed, and more than a little worried. Ten seconds into it, not only doesn't it sound like classic Toad, but worse, a desperate rehash of The Cure, circa "Friday, I'm In Love." Hello? What's going on here? Not a way to reward your loyal following, if you ask me. Apparently however, I am in the minority, judging by the sycophantic posts left by fans on their official website. Now that we have the full album, I'm here to report that New Constellation is not the disaster I thought it might be. It's not exactly a bonafide comeback, either.

After that embarrassing misstep opens the album, things settle into normalcy with "California's Wasted" a fitting postscript to the late 90's Toad of Dulcinea and Coil, although the arrangement bears resemblance to Jakob Dylan's Wallflowers, save for Glen Phillips' signature vocals. Yes guys, I understand that sixteen years is a long absence from the rock world, and a lot has changed, including listener's tastes, and I'd be the last person to fault you for integrating other styles into the Toad formula. But there's a fine line between formula and formulaic, and New Constellation seems to want it both ways. Lyrically, it's business-as-usual, which isn't a pejorative: "New Constellation" makes the observation, "When did I fall so far off center?/It's a fractured view through faulty lenses/What do you trust when you can't trust your senses?"; on the impressive "Rare Bird" Phillips intones "I talk too much, I always do/Till sense is lost, along with truth/The silence is the harmony to every word I truly mean", and is one of a handful of tracks where Toad's harmonies truly shine.

Then there's the gauzy rocker "I'll Bet On You", whose romantic message is tempered by statements like "Get ready for the big rain/Everything will change in an instant/Slowly, the waters rise around you/Quickly, so much washed away" (and is likely referencing Hurricane Katrina's impact on New Orleans, a town that holds special meaning for the band.) This is followed by the country-folk of "Golden Age", featuring the legendary pedal steel of Greg Leisz, as Phillips passionately croons "All we are is vanity/Comics playing tragedy/I traded in my sanity/For a dream that soon abandoned me/God loves a madman..." - it's one of the strongest and most heartfelt tunes on New Constellation, and reminds us that when Toad are in the zone, they are consummate pop craftsmen to be reckoned with. And while the band hits its stride in the second half of the album, the unifying thread doesn't feel as apparent or dramatic as it was on Dulcinea or Coil, and that's a shame, because unrealized potential abounds on Constellation - part of me wants to shake singer Glen Phillips, guitarist Todd Nichols, bassist Dean Dinning and drummer Randy Guss for playing it so damn safe.

Where's the band that brought us the majestic "Walk On The Ocean", that Gaelic shanty which deceptively opened the stunning song-cycle of Fear, TTWS's shining moment (which now sits on Rolling Stone's Top Albums of All Time?) A glimpse of that genius appears on the album's closer, "Enough." Phillips wraps his voice around a haunting melody and dark lyrics: "The mind is willing, but the body resists/The fight is over but the pain persists/The day is short, the task is great/And I am idle" - the last line repeated like a mantra of resignation and regret over a George Harrison-esque guitar solo. Not only does it end New Constellation on a high (or is that low) note, but offers hope that the next offering from Toad wont be afraid to rage against the dying of the light. Grade: B

Sting The Last Ship (Cherry Tree/Interscope) – Even in the early days of The Police, one sensed in Sting not only a taste for the theatrical (in live performance and their iconic music videos) but the soul of an artist yearning to transcend the boundaries of contemporary music. I'll even go so far as to conjecture that the artistic direction he was steering the group in, circa Synchronicity was the biggest bone of contention for bandmates Andy Summer and especially Stewart Copeland: the flirtation with jazz and blues on “Murder By Numbers” “Low Life” and the overtly orchestral leanings on “Wrapped Around Your Finger” and “Every Breath You Take” seemed poised to defang the punk angst and adulterated ska leanings of their rebellious beginnings.

Now that Sting is his own entity, he has carte blanche to go in any musical direction that suits him, from jazz standards to neo-Celtic/Renaissance to adult contemporary R'n'B. 1985's solo debut The Dream of the Blue Turtles was radical for a number of reasons, least of all being the conceit of enlisting an all-black jazz combo (featuring Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland) to accompany him – check out the cinematic bombast on “Russians” as a frame of reference. But somewhere along the line, Sting became fodder for the barista-patron crowd, writing pretty vacant numbers like “Fields of Gold”, “Desert Rose” and “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You” (which in spite of its occasional acerbic lyric, was smooth jazz in the worst sense of the word.) The one curveball thrown during this post-Police stint was the commercial flop, The Soul Cages. Informed by the recent death of his father (his mum passed during the sessions for Nothing Like The Sun) TSC couldn't help but be a meditation on mortality and disillusionment, and could've easily been the schmaltziest record of his career.

Instead, TSC was a emotional song-cycle of tremendous beauty and occasional brilliance: the opener, “Island Of Souls” was theatrical without being solipsistic – not merely serving as an aural homage to his dad, but a marvelous meditation on the plight of aging shipbuilders in his native England. It seems then a natural progression that some twenty years later, Sting would revisit this theme on The Last Ship, his first album of new music since 2009's Christmas CD, If On A Winter's Night. It also marks the return of Sting the risk-taker: the soundtrack to a musical that's set to debut on Broadway next year, following such gambles as U2's Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark and Paul Simon's ambitious failure, The Capeman. Regardless of whether theatergoers will embrace this work remains to be seen, but musically-speaking, Sting has come into his own here. He incorporates his entire musical history, while integrating all the genres that have inspired and informed his work, including Broadway. On the jazz ballad, "A Practical Arrangement" he recalls the self-deprecating lyricism of Stephen Sondheim: "Am I asking for the moon?/Is it really so implausible that you and I could soon come to some kind of arrangement?/We could start with separate beds/I could sleep alone, or learn to..."

"Language Of Birds" cleverly reprises the theme on "Island Of Souls"; "And Yet" begins as a bossa nova homage to Antonin Carlos Jobim, then occasionally peppers the arrangement with Police-like syncopation, while lyrically unveiling the wages of self-indulgence: "You crept into port with the scum of the seas/To the dance halls and brothels where you took your ease/The ship's left the dock, and you're half-past caring/And you haven't got a clue whose bed you're sharing/Your head's like a hammer on a bulkhead door/And you feel like somebody might've broken your jaw/There's blood stains and glass all over the floor/And you swear to God you'll drink no more/And yet......." Clearly, Sting is not phoning it in on The Last Ship - if anything, he attacks the material with the fervor of a has-been prizefighter ready to prove he can still score a knockout. "Ballad Of The Great Eastern" comes across as a lost Chiefains track, replete with Northumbrian pipes and an animated fiddle accompanying Sting's tale of a nautical disaster. Some critics have been taken aback by Sting's flirtation with Breton/Northumbrian dialects on many of the songs, calling it a little too precious for their tastes. I would have to disagree: once you get past the initial shock, Sting does an admirable job of assimilation, and when taken in the context of the story being told, makes total sense, so it seems a petty argument to me.

What makes The Last Ship a revelation is that the album is a carefully-crafted, lovingly created musical that melds pop, jazz, classical and Broadway idioms, bolstered by Sting's narrative - acerbic, romantic, and starkly introspective. The instrumentation is stellar, the arrangements breathtaking, and it's impossible not to get swept away by Sting the storyteller: his voice has never sounded so emotive, sexy, and assured (as on the lilting "So To Speak", featuring a vocal duet from Becky Unthank, or the rousing Celtic stomp "What Have We Got?" with a star-turn from Geordie actor/singer Jimmy Nail.) I'd wade through ten thousand Summoner's Tales to hear something as elegiac as the sad waltz "I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else" or the audacious reel "Hadaway." You can bet I'll do my best to be in the audience when The Last Ship opens in the Spring of 2014, if only to raise my glass to Mr. Sumner and say, "Well done, me laddie." Grade: A+

Stone Temple Pilots High Rise EP (Play Pen Recordings) - This CD poses the musical question, "Should we really take seriously an album under the STP banner that finds pilot Scott Weiland replaced by the frontman for Linkin Park? The parallel here would be if, during their heyday, the other members of The Doors, fed up with Jim Morrison's drug use and erratic behavior enlisted say, Eric Burdon: true, he's charismatic and a strong singer in his own right, but it wouldn't sound like The Doors, now would it? So there's your answer. But since this is the first new music from STP since their last eponymous release with Weiland, it warrants some amount of attention be paid - after all, knowing Chester Bennington remains committed to Linkin Park on a full-time basis, this is essentially a side-project, no matter how much guitarist Dean DeLeo, bassist Rob DeLeo and drummer Eric Kretz wish it otherwise.

And to their credit, the musicianship of said trio has always been the selling point of Stone Temple Pilots. The three have an unmistakable chemistry, a shrewd scholarship of rock's variegated forms, and a knack for killer hooks, which is on display throughout High Rise. Indeed, if it weren't so obvious that Weiland isn't in the cockpit, lead single "Out Of Time" could be an outtake from the sessions for No. 4. Similarly, "Black Heart" takes a page from Tiny Music's "Big Bang Baby" and "Pop's Love Suicide" respectively, and boasts some intriguing harmonies during the middle-eight section. "Same On The Inside" holds its own against the pop gems on Shangri-La Dee Da, with its contrasting arena rock/psychedelic backdrop and iridescent chorus. Then there's the thinly-veiled "Cry, Cry" - a parting shot at their former leader whose lyrics aren't quite bitchy, but come awfully close: "Cry cry, can't say no/Nothing cures a craving/Cry cry, it's all for show/Just a game you're playing/Tears will not cure the pain.."

Now, imagine how much gravitas that lyric would hold if Scott were actually the one singing it? Weiland has never been shy about addressing his demons in song, and it's plausible that under the right circumstances, he might even be predisposed to such unflinching self-critique. The EP ends with "Tomorrow", a serviceable ballad that benefits from a bombastic refrain (courtesy of Kretz) with Bennington's approach coming across as being more within his element, ironically making this track the closest to feeling like authentic STP. But just as The Animals are not The Doors, Linkin Park is not STP. And without Weiland, "Stone Temple Pilots With Chester Bennington" might as well be Talk Show. Grade B-

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