The same year that a band called REM set up shop in Athens, Georgia, America, a band called Depeche Mode set up shop in Basildon, Essex, Britain.
The two bands are as different as the Kings of Leon and Lady Gaga. But as I learnt about the news of Michael Stipes and his pals unplugging REM after 31 years of intermittent moments of sweater-attired flash, I was listening to a Depeche Mode triple-CD set that’s just out. It is a collection of spiffy remixes of much of their output. And I couldn’t help but think that REM could have elongated their career a wee bit with remixed versions of ‘Green grow the rushes,’ ‘Shiny happy people’, ‘Nightswimming’...
But quickly enough, I realised that unlike REM, Depeche Mode’s oeuvre needed to be remixed to not sound like expensive hair gel.
Now, I know there are some paunchy Depeche Mode fans out there who still swear by the faux medieval atmospherics of ‘Walking in my shoes’ (from their naff sounding 1993 Songs of Faith and Devotion album). But frankly, frontman Dave Gahan’s much practised baritone was irritating when I first heard him, and remains irritating as I hear it through the mash of layered music of these remixes.
So I’m a believer in the power of botox. ‘John the revelator’ from Depeche’s 2005 album, Playing the Angel, is one of the band’s strongest tracks to start with. But remixed by trip-hop boys UNCKLE, it jumps out like a schizophrenic in a Baptist church complete with a loop from the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet dreams’. The crankcore version of ‘Never let me down’ served up by German electro-meister duo Digitalism hits metal on metal and rescues the track from sappy meadows. Jaunt across to the second CD, and the magic is slapped on by Stuart Price aka Jacques lu Cont in the remix of ‘A pain that I’m used to’. Even Gahan’s heavy breathing takes a (thankful) back seat to the light-footed, happy-happy music. Hip hop producer Dan the Automator aka Daniel Nakamura does a subtle turn on ‘Only when I lose myself’, stripping away the music, leaving a heartbeat to give Gahan company. The soundscape is stretched and banged out in the ‘Helmet at the helm’ remix of that other Depeche hit, ‘I feel you’, courtesy Mark ‘Spike’ Stent.
Not all the experiments, however, are as successful (read: match my palate). If you’re more into that loungey stuff — thus making you a natural heir to Depeche Mode’s music — you could stop by at the tripsy-synthy Adrenaline remix of ‘Higher love’ or the Donna Summer-friendly Bushwacka Tough Guy mix that starts the collection.
But the bompity mix by ex-Depeche member Vince Clarke (and one of the few tracks where the original has a shine of its own) enhances Gahan’s voice that sounds really real when he sings, “Oh little girl/ there are times when I feel/ I’d rather not be/ the one behind the wheel”. Despite the club sound of many grasshoppers rubbing their legs, this track arrests the ears. I pit the rock’n’rolling ‘Personal Jesus (Alex Metric Remix)’ against the lucious ‘Personal Jesus (Sie Medway-Smith Remix)’. The first one wins hands down. By the time, I travel the seven seas of this triple-CD collection, I think I don’t mind looking up on Depeche Mode originals that I haven’t visited since I was waylaid by chaps like REM.
What do you folks call this kind of music now? Alt-emo? Demo-tape? Arcade Fire Lite? Dunno. But you either like a man singing ‘poetically’ with an operatic falsetto or you don’t. I don’t. So Wild Beasts from England’s Lake District may be as critically acclaimed these days as Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer was then, but ‘Lion’s share’, the opening track of the band’s third album Smother makes me think that I’m hearing C3PO’s favourite music.
‘Bed of nails’ quivers on similarly with aforementioned man singer Hayden Thorpe’s fat falsetto sounding like Nathan Lane’s character in The Bird Cage. The opening drum beats makes me hope for better tidings in ‘Deeper’, but it’s more of a look-out-of-the-window-with-your-first-Starbuck kind of song that an engaging track. (But you just got turned out by that description, didn’t you?) Smother is aptly named. ‘Loop the loop’ is loopy with Thorpe’s Adam’s apple dancing to the anodyne music. I’m afraid things don’t look up with the santoor-like music of ‘Burning’. The whole album can only be tolerated while watching a modern dance recital. It’s really beautiful — and expensive! — rubbish.