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Reviews of CDs by Depeche Mode, Allen Toussaint and Wussy

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

SOUNDS OF THE UNIVERSE

Depeche Mode

"Sounds of the Universe" is everything you could want from a Depeche Mode album in 2009, in that it sounds nothing like an album from 2009. The gloomy synth-rock pioneers seem comfortable with the fact that they became gloomy synth-rock pioneers for a reason, and the resulting lack of industrial clang or forced club beats means the focus remains where it belongs -- on Martin Gore's synth symphonies, hopelessly romantic lyrics and Dave Gahan's dramatic delivery of the latter.

"Fragile Tension" scoots along with "Legend of Zelda" sounds sneaking out from every corner while Gahan does his very best to sell the vague ("There's something magical in the air/Some things so tragic we have to care") as a matter of life and death. Gore has never been the most inventive lyricist, and that doesn't change in the slightest on "Universe." He's still one of the premier "guess the rhyme" writers (Strong? Wrong! Proof? Truth!), but subtlety and cleverness have rarely had a place in Depeche Mode's universe. Gahan's steely voice works well with big issues -- love, lust, betrayal, fear -- and his simple intensity suits the songs better than any unnecessary wordiness.

Gore also keeps things relatively uncluttered musically. A chunky keyboard riff drives lead single "Wrong," and warm sounds wash over "Peace," even if it's hard to believe Gahan as he moans, "There is no space for the regrets. . . . Peace will come to me." After all, we've heard similar sentiments before. Good thing they still sound so good.

Depeche Mode performs at Nissan Pavilion July 28.

-- David Malitz

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Peace," "Fragile Tension, "Wrong"

THE BRIGHT MISSISSIPPI

Allen Toussaint

From "Mother-in-Law" to "Ruler of My Heart," producer, writer, arranger and accompanist Allen Toussaint has had a hand in the making of as many major New Orleans hits as anyone. He's even been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And yet, despite his considerable résumé and accolades, he remains, at age 71, one of pop music's best-kept secrets.

"The Bright Mississippi," the self-effacing pianist's exquisite new set of Crescent City-associated jazz, isn't likely to make him any more of a household name. But it does reveal his great flair and imagination as an interpreter and performer.

Produced by singer-songwriter Joe Henry, the record features clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and guitarist Marc Ribot teaming up with Toussaint on re-imagined versions of standards written by the heady likes of King Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll Morton. The playfulness in the call-and-response on "Singin' the Blues" is palpable, especially toward the end, when the pianist answers the trumpeter's stomp and swagger with thrilling trills and glissandos.

A more gutbucket, but equally satisfying, back-and-forth takes place between Toussaint's vocals and piano and Ribot's bottleneck slide guitar on "Long, Long Journey." Pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman make cameos on one track apiece, Redman with a gloriously languid performance on "Day Dream," a Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn original sweetened by some of Toussaint's most elegant playing here.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Singin' the Blues," "Long, Long Journey," "Day Dream"

WUSSY

Wussy

"We could row against the undertow," muses guitarist Lisa Walker during the lurching second stanza of "Muscle Cars," only to think better of it as she plunges headlong into the song's chorus. There, surrendering to the rhythm, she submits, "It's okay . . . pull me under . . . all the way."

Walker's impulse could double as Wussy's artistic statement of purpose: Few bands since the Velvet Underground-steeped heyday of the Feelies, Yo La Tengo and R.E.M. have abandoned themselves so completely to the ebbing, flowing currents of keening, droning guitars.

The Cincinnati quartet's third full-length album might be more subdued than their previous efforts, but much like the Velvets' crepuscular third LP, what it sacrifices in noisy grandeur it makes up for in sumptuous melodies and grooves. The album-opening "Little Paper Birds" might even be a tremulous, lo-fi homage to "Pale Blue Eyes."

The ominously titled "Gone Missing" and "This Will Not End Well," meanwhile, are re-imagined folk-rock. As with everything on the record, both convey more than a hint of dissonance, not just in their pregnant chord changes but also in the staggered vocals of Walker and fellow bandleader Chuck Cleaver. Bassist Mark Messerly adds sublime pop touches on bells, various keyboards and stringed things on "Magic Words" and "Maglite."

Lyrically, Cleaver's outsider point of view on the likes of "Dreadful Sorry" and "Happiness Bleeds" tends to predominate, but Walker's outpourings of desperation and desire are no less captivating -- as seductive, in their way, as the irresistible undertow of the music.

-- Bill Friskics-Warren

DOWNLOAD THESE: "Muscle Cars," "Magic Words," "Maglite"

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