In the two years since they first arrested America’s attention with singer-bassist Sting’s Top Forty love song for a prostitute, “Roxanne,” the Police have gotten trapped in a credibility gap between their commercial importance as a New Wave phenomenon and their artistic standing as a New Wave band. On one hand, the group’s minimalist approach to tour economics, Sting’s riveting charisma on stage and screen (he was the ultracool Ace Face in the movie Quadrophenia) and an ambitious 1980 Third World tour have all paid off, making the Police this decade’s model for superstar strategists.
On the other hand, however, their individualistic fusion of polished reggae, bathroom-echo dub, Andy Summers’ Jeff Beckcum-Ramones guitar thrash and Sting’s inverted pop hooks is too often filed under “FM punk.” In a world reeling from the Gang of Four’s leftist rants and Talking Heads’ future-funk experiments, the Police — like the similarly maligned Cars. Blondie and Joe Jackson — are accused of being homogenized New Wave: i.e., it sounds good on a car radio, and you can sing it in the shower.
ZenyattàÃ‚Â Mondatta closes any such credibility gap with class and a vengeance. On one level, the current album is an engaging aural travelogue of the Anglo-American power trio’s Near and Far East tour (its title is more of the Police’s pidgin-English wordplay, bastardizing Zen. Jomo Kenyatta and monde, the French word for world). These guys continue to indulge their love for reggae, thinly disguising Stewart Copeland’s tight, choppy, neo-roots drumming with Sting’s airy vocal harmonies and Andy Summers’ ringing guitar harmonics in the overtly popstyle classroom love story, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” and the brooding “Driven to Tears.” They also dabble in ska: “Canary in a Coalmine” and Sting’s witty rewrite of the timeworn rock-star-on-the-road blues, “Man in a Suitcase.”
More obvious are the influences of Indian, Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern music and atmosphere. In “Bombs Away,” Summers takes a raveup solo that mixes hot rock chops with exotic modal progressions. The result sounds like an outtake from the Midnight Express soundtrack. Ethnomusicologists will note the similarity between the “Hey!” choruses of “Voices inside My Head” and the traditional Balinese monkey chant. Come to think of it. Sting’s high-pitched singing has never been that far removed from the Moslem call to prayer.
On another, more immediate level, ZenyattàÃ‚Â Mondatta offers near-perfect pop by a band that bends all the rules and sometimes makes musical mountains out of molehill-size ideas. Like Reggatta de Blanc‘s “Walking on the Moon” and “The Bed’s Too Big without You,” the new LP’s “When the World Is Running Down, You Make the Best of What’s Still Around” is based on a hypnotic three-chord progression that’s repeated for almost four minutes. But the subtly dramatic rises and falls of Sting’s vocal, the ricochet effect of Summers’ reverberating guitar and Copeland’s clipped dance beat create a melodic mirage of music and mood that lasts a long time. Much longer than the momentary upbeat charm of, say, “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.” The latter tune is blessed with a strong hook and a quirky guitar figure too good to waste on baby talk.
The Police’s secret weapon is Andy Summers, a remarkable musician whose resume reads like a Who’ Who of obscure English rock: Kevin Coyne. Kevin Ayers, Gong and one of Eric Burdon’s last-gasp versions of the Animals. Unlike those power-trio guitarists who merely boost the volume to compensate for an absence of technique or a second guitar picker. Summers plays more like Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix, jazzing up generally simple chord changes for rich harmonic textures. He embellishes these with a tastefully applied array of electronic effects — echo, reverb, phasing — to achieve a resonant metallic sound that fills in the wide-open spaces between Sting’s singing and Copeland’s snappy drumming.
Like the first two Police records. ZenyattàÃ‚Â Mondalta is weighed down with instrumental numbers (Summers’ spooky “Behind My Camel.” Copeland’s bust-out rocker, “The Other Way of Stopping”) that lack only a characteristic Sting vocal to make the jump from jams to songs. But unlike Outlandos d’Amour and Reggatta de Blanc (two concentrated attempts at wedding machine-gun punk to sensual reggae), there’s unity in ZenyattàÃ‚Â Mondatta‘s very diversity.
From straight pop fodder to ethnic boogie to spacey interludes, the Police’s common denominator is still the elastic interplay among Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. They seem determined to keep trying to stretch it. Never have so few done so much with so little. And made it all sound so damn easy.