Hit-And-Miss Lust Letter To Depeche Mode

Electro-pop for the people.

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

for success.

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

this tribute.

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 ...