Ah, the tribute album. What easier way to make a few bucks than to
contribute to an album that doesn't ask you to come up with original
material, instead allowing you to redo another band's best tunes. Eighties
electro-pop gods Depeche Mode may have inspired countless
wannabe-keyboardists to suffer through piano lessons, but album
co-producer/God Lives Underwater member Jeff Turzo sure picked a strange
mixture of hitmakers, up-and-comers and who-the-hecks to pay homage to DM
on For the Masses.
There are good tribute albums -- for example, the revamping of Cole Porter
classics by such modern-day stars as U2, David Byrne, Sinead O'Connor and
the Jungle Brothers for Red, Hot & Blue -- and then there are tribute
albums that are obviously scraped together to make money off another band's
proven success. Being the synth-pop pioneers of the '80s, one of the
forerunners of electronica, Depeche Mode should merit covers better than
those uncreatively churned out by the majority of the 16 artists on For
the Masses. When you're riding on the strength of another band's name
and its fans' nostalgia for certain tracks, what better time to show off
your artistry and break the chains of your record company's stale formula
Unfortunately, For the Masses is merely a middle-of-the-road
"tribute" album, not an album of imaginative covers. Unlike the creative
reworkings of Carpenters songs on the tribute album If I Were A
Carpenter, For the Masses contributors pay tribute to the
English foursome by staying very close to the bone of DM's versions.
Instead of updating or expanding the Depeche Mode songs -- taken from eight
of the band's 10 albums, conspicuously leaving out DM's debut and their
last album -- most bands' contributions sound like the original DM song
with only a few new instruments or "cool" nuances thrown in. The vocal
inflection of most of the male singers on this album is so similar to DM
singer Dave Gahan's voice that you wonder if it's really the lead singer of
Failure/Dishwalla/Meat Beat Manifesto/Apollo 440/Deftones or simply a Gahan
sample run through a processor of some sort.
Of course, there are exceptions to this "unimaginative" rule (thank god).
Smashing Pumpkins turn in a mellow, melodic version of "Never Let Me Down
Again" (Music For the Masses), a sweetly rendered track that is by
far the best song on this album. Recorded three years ago and previously
available as a B-side, this song obviously was logged long before the
electronic histrionics and programmed beats of Adore, the Pumpkins'
latest album. Instead of a drum machine, a real drummer is present -- the
song is credited simply to the Smashing Pumpkins, but that human touch on
the drums was probably since-fired Jimmy Chamberlain -- and the difference
is noticeable and drastic. The "traditional" Pumpkins guitar sound -- in
this case, leaning toward the less raucous "Drown" or "1979" -- of nimble,
silvery guitar-playing, subtle bass and real drum beats is what makes "Never" stand apart.
The Cure turn in a pseudo-psychedelic rendition of "World in My Eyes"
(Violator), honing in on and repeating the word "trip" in the
opening lines of "Let me take you on a trip, around the world and back."
Although the mope-rock band is known and loved for its (previously)
guitar-based sound, there aren't any real stringed instruments in this
song, only keyboards and noisy, discordant samples. As peers of the
keyboard-toting Depeche Mode, it's interesting to hear how DM influenced
the Cure's current, keyboard-based sound. It's ironic that Depeche Mode
have been concentrating on guitar-based rock with their most recent albums,
Ultra (1997) and Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993).
Rabbit in the Moon's "Waiting for the Night" (Violator) begins with
a tribal beat and sparse orchestration, adds vocals, switches to spoken
word and then abruptly drops in a fast, funky break-beat with what sounds
like the keyboard line from DM's original. The updated version's
ever-changing pace and airy vocals make it an impressive track. Likewise,
Hooverphonic's "Shake the Disease" (the original was an import single)
stands out for its compelling female lead-vocals and subtly electronic
rhythm and beat. It's a perfect last-song-of-the-night comedown. These
two bands could be DM's granddaughters, carrying on the fine, family
tradition of keyboard-driven songs.
It's unfortunate that Veruca Salt's last studio track together had to be
their take on "Somebody" (Some Great Reward). Instead of Louise
Post's and Nina Gordon's distinctly ferocious vocals and squealing guitar
riffs, this tender if sappy love song (alternately known as a laundry list
of wants in a mate) is turned into a lethargic lullaby. Goopy,
half-drugged vocals and what sounds like an answering-machine message being
played in the background mar the song's potentially lovely cello.
Alternately, the driving thrash-rock and low, raspy talk-singing of
Rammstein's "Stripped" (Black Celebration) turn a somewhat
provocative invitation ("Come with me, into the trees/ We'll lay on the
grass and let the hours pass ... Let me see you stripped ... ") into a
thoroughly frightening proposition. But in a good way ... The German
industrial-rockers brand this song as their own; it's weird, spooky
(replete with keyboards that are reminiscent of the ghosts-are-in-the-house
warning music on "Scooby Doo") and totally different from anything else on
On the other end of the "different" spectrum is a cheeseball version of the
dominatrix theme song "Master and Servant" (Some Great Reward).
What begins as an innocuous samba turns into a nauseating, cooing duet.
The two singers from Locust (surely this song is a sign of the apocalypse)
take such S&M-tinged lyrics as "Domination is the name of the game/ in bed
or in life/ they're both just the same" and turn them into a song that will
sooner trigger lemming-like hara-kiri than spur couples into bedrooms.
Toss in God Lives Underwater's "Death is everywhere-air-air" interpretation
of the eye-opening, seize-the-day track "Fly on the Windscreen" (Black
Celebration); Failure's squeaky-guitar and thrash-metal version of
"Enjoy the Silence" (Violator); Dishwalla's grungy keyboard on
"Policy of Truth" (Violator); Meat Beat Manifesto's booming bass and
electronic fuzz-bleeps on "Everything Counts" (Construction Time
Again/People Are People); Self's overly screechy "Shame"
(Construction Time Again); Monster Magnet's distorted vocals and
preprogrammed keyboards on "Black Celebration" (Black Celebration);
Apollo 440's ethereal but unmoving "I Feel You" (Songs of Faith and
Devotion); Gus Gus' filtered, layered "Monument" (Broken Frame);
and the Deftones' alternately droning and wailing "To Have and to Hold"
(Music For the Masses) and you're faced with an overwhelming
majority of bands that turned in uneven, wholly uninspired "tributes." And
where are "People Are People" (Depeche Mode's first U.S. hit), "Blasphemous
Rumours," "Question of Lust," "Strangelove" and the early songs "Just Can't
Get Enough" and "Get the Balance Right"?
Instead of being dazzled by 16 bands stripping DM tunes to their core and
creatively reassembling them, this album leaves you craving
imagination. Perhaps the best aspect of For the Masses is how
you're left comparing the covers to the originals and realizing just how
good those originals are. For the Masses will make you dig up your
old DM albums and marvel at the simple brilliance of Martin Gore's
songwriting, the unadorned beauty of Gahan's flexible baritone and the
masterful layers of sounds created by keyboardists Gore, Andy Fletcher and
Alan Wilder. I'm listening to Black Celebration right now ...