The timing couldn't have been better. Pro-rain forest activist and generally concerned rock star Sting has released his third solo album, The Soul Cages. For maximum environmental protection, the CD is packaged in a ''digipack,'' a fold-over cardboard case designed as an alternative to the wasteful, tree-killing longbox. By an odd quirk of fate, producer Ruth Happel has recently unveiled A Month in the Brazilian Rainforest, four volumes of intensive all-natural sound effects recorded in Brazil. The records not only supplement each other perfectly; they also help answer one of the most vital questions ever considered by man. Which is more irritating mosquitoes or pompous rock stars?
The Soul Cages has little to do with rain forests or any subject as overtly global as Brazilian Rainforest. Like everything Sting has done since the Police established themselves as the most commercially successful of all power-pop bands, the album is intended as a serious artistic statement. Early word of mouth had it that the record would be a return to Sting's rock-oriented roots (especially since he is playing bass, not guitar, for the first time since the Police's Synchronicity in 1983). No such luck, though: The music is more of the same lounge-jazz/pop he's been making since he went solo. There are elements of rock & roll in guitarist Dominic Miller's power chords and solos, but with the rare exception of a mild rave-up on the title song, the guitar is safely tucked away.
Blaring guitars probably wouldn't be appropriate anyway, since the songs are mostly a sullen bunch that explore personal and romantic loss and relationships gone astray, with the recent death of Sting's father casting a shadow over the proceedings. In ''Island of Souls,'' a shipbuilder's son mourns the death of his dad from a work accident, while Sting's own loss is more directly expressed in ''All This Time'' and the mournful ''Why Should I Cry for You?'' In comparison, the inevitable tract about world destruction, ''Jeremiah Blues (Part 1),'' sounds like good news.
Somber themes, even those of an intimate bent, are nothing new for a Sting record. But rarely have songs about feeling awful sounded so stillborn and unmoving. The man was never as much of a sucker for a hook as Elton John was, but throughout The Soul Cages, Sting defiantly resists hummability as if a mere catchy pop chorus were too frivolous for such weighty content. Likewise, his latest band a mix of jazz and rock veterans seems to be taking its cue from its leader, a man incapable of leaving a simple thought alone. Just when the group settles into a cozy groove on ''Jeremiah Blues (Part 1),'' for instance, the mood is broken with a noodling piano break. At other times, the arrangements don't make sense: ''All This Time,'' which should be one of the record's most touching moments, is upbeat for no discernible reason.The Soul Cages tries to be hip mood music for the mind equal parts New Wave and New Age. The Brazilian Rainforest records, part of Rykodisc's ''Atmosphere Collection'' series, achieve that goal effortlessly. The concept does sound silly, with each record (sold separately) taking in a different time of day, from Dawn Chorus and Jungle Journey to Rain Forest and Evening Echoes. On first listen, you may chuckle at the concept of 60 minutes of gentle rain, with a variety of sounds (insects, animals, you name it) subtly entering and receding.
At their most captivating, though, the assorted woodpeckers, macaws, and parrots create a hypnotic brand of music akin to a typical piece by a minimalist composer like Steve Reich. At their dullest the records are merely pleasant background music for relaxing or studying. Still, even the most sleep-inducing moments are forgivable, since the Brazilian Rainforest series aims to be educational, to point out what we may never hear again if the forests are destroyed. With their creaks, croaks, and endlessly fascinating variations on the pulse of jungle fever, these modern-day protest records don't whine or complain; they proselytize in a modest, self-effacing way. Self-involved blond rock stars could learn from them. Sting: C; Brazilian Rainforest, all four: B+