for the MASSES
Certain signs indicate that a band is aging: Instead of new material, it releases "best of" compilations, B-side collections, rare recordings, and the obligatory live album; at least one member goes through either a 12-step program or rehab; and earnest up-and-comers obsessively cite the band as an influence.
All of the above apply to Depeche Mode, the '80s bastion of synth-pop and dark sentimentality. To make the graying of Depeche Mode official, a passel of alternative artists has contributed tracks to a tribute album, for the MASSES. Post-Mode groups from Veruca Salt to Dishwalla, along with Depeche contemporaries the Cure and the Smashing Pumpkins, have selected and interpreted their favorite songs from David Gahan and company's 13-year oeuvre.
The range of songs represents the likely suspects for any best-of album, and those participating in the roast have remained fairly true to the original recordings. The Pumpkins open up with their 1993 version of "Never Let Me Down Again," rendering a smooth, mellow update of DM's standard. God Lives Underwater, by toning down the synthesizer, and Dishwalla, by infusing some much-needed guitar, turn "Fly on the Windscreen" and "Policy of Truth," respectively, into actual rock 'n' roll tunes.
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"World in My Eyes" sounds just the way you'd expect the Cure to sound covering Depeche Mode; the two bands' styles merge seamlessly. Likewise, Self weaves its quirky, almost Celtic rhythms into the fabric of a retooled "Shame." Veruca Salt wallows in the high-school-dance quality of "Somebody" as a woman's touch on the vocals eases the song gracefully into its full maudlin potential.
Other highlights include Hooverphonic's vastly improved take on "Shake the Disease." Thanks to Geike Arnaert's sultry Belgian vocals and a livelier beat, the song moves along at a much better pace than the original. Rammstein performs "Stripped" with a spooky, oddly appropriate Cookie Monster/Speak 'n' Spell voice. "Master and Servant," however, comes off as mere musical novelty in the hands of Locust, which infuses the cut with a bossa nova beat and a lounge-singer demeanor.
Overall, the album is more appealing for its kitsch than its tribute value, but kitsch certainly appeals to those in Depeche Mode's umbra of appreciation. For the MASSES serves as a fitting encomium to a band that, for better or worse, paved the way for the synthesizer's acceptance as a legitimate musical instrument rather than a simple Tinkertoy. The 16 songs and range of artists on MASSES display the influence DM has had on alternative music. Now all Depeche Mode fans have to do is wait for the band's breakup and reunion tour.
-- Liesa Goins
The Oranj Album
Thanks to Oranj Symphonette's twisted debut paying tribute to the music of Henry Mancini, some jazz purists may dismiss the quintet as a novelty act. But the Oranj men's pedigree is too heavily weighted by both genetics and experience to be disputed. Multi-instrumentalists Matt Brubeck (son of jazz legend Dave Brubeck) and Ralph Carney (ex-Tin Huey) served as session musicians for Tom Waits, and they've established some impressive credentials, including Brubeck's stints with Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, Club Foot Orchestra, and Jewel, and Carney's work with the B-52's, Marc Ribot, and Hal Willner. Guitarist Joe Gore has also worked with Waits (notably on the Grammy-winning Bone Machine), and he contributed to the last two PJ Harvey albums. Throw in Juilliard-trained pianist Rob Burger and drummer Pat Campbell, and the stage is set for a group that mixes fundamental jazz with a giddy and frenetic dose of Raymond Scott, Carl Stallings, Spike Jones, and Danny Elfman.
This time out, Oranj Symphonette expands its focus to include some of its favorite movie-score work, even as the group revisits Mancini's work (with the themes from Arabesque and Gunn). Highlights include a funky take on Elmer Bernstein's "The Magnificent Seven," a great reading of Burt Bacharach's already loopy "After the Fox," and Marvin Hamlisch's manic "Bananas." The Oranj's twisted version of Francis Lai's "A Man and a Woman" plays like an outtake from Frank Zappa's sessions for Hot Rats, while a brilliance in arranging is shown by the incongruous and successful pairing of "Midnight Cowboy" and "Up, Up and Away." Any number of other offerings on the disc (particularly the deconstruction of Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll") suggest an alternate reality, where Soul Coughing forsakes hip-hop for pure jazz but leaves the funk groove intact.
The Oranj Album presses just about every hot-button of contemporary music. Cocktail nation kids will be satisfied with the kitsch of the album, jazz fans should appreciate the craft and style of it, and aficionados of the fringe will be captivated by the weirdness of it. Still, the album is primarily a jazz piece, proving that Oranj Symphonette has that rare ability to tweak the traditions of jazz and simultaneously pay homage to them.
-- Brian Baker
Wide Swing Tremolo
Any mention of Son Volt and its leader, Jay Farrar, will always include the fact that he was the songwriter for Uncle Tupelo. (The group's 1994 breakup also spawned Wilco.) The smart-country, No Depression genre owes most of its visibility to Tupelo, though the group often seemed to be parroting country music without understanding its heart. Son Volt shows Farrar in a more settled light, especially here on the band's third record. Farrar doesn't rest on past glories; to his credit he has been adding more warmth and feeling to his songs, which sound less and less like Sticky Fingers outtakes, especially with textured feedback strewn throughout.
A gifted songwriter, he understands minimalism and understatement, particularly on "Blind Hope." As the tune shuffles toward the album's conclusion and the bass guitar rumbles, Farrar sings of "Living it up on the downside" while the pedal-steel offers little consolation. It is a moment of beauty built on a foundation of simple instrumentation.
Sparse production and Farrar's plaintive singing suggest a longing, and so these concise, short story-like songs are frequently haunting. The dirge "Dead Man's Clothes" waltzes with the help of a military snare drum and a somber fiddle before seemingly collapsing in on itself. Because individual instruments are given enough room to breathe, songs like "Straightface" -- with fuzzed vocals and harmonica histrionics -- and "Strands" -- broken up by bits of controlled feedback -- demonstrate self-assurance.
Though the album was mostly mixed by Farrar and David Barbe (formerly of Sugar), three tracks were handled by heavyweights John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr) and Jack Joseph Puig (Weezer, Semisonic). You'd think that, by turning to these radio-friendly knob-turners, Son Volt was seeking to raise its profile, but Tremolo doesn't sound much different than the band's previous records. No high-gloss sheen was applied to the tracks, nor should it have been; because Farrar is from the Neil Young school of singing -- more feeling than technique -- his kind of alternacountry is best when delivered unrefined.
The most obvious song for the airwaves, "Flow," is a two-minute, barnstorming, up-tempo number with lots of guitar fills. A concentrated blast of what makes Son Volt stand out from the pack -- tight playing, a good sense of dynamics, short verses, and catchy melody -- it demonstrates the band's confidence and renewed sense of enthusiasm.
-- David Simutis
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