Sylvain Chauveau & Ensemble Nocturne Down to the Bone: An Acoustic Tribute to Depeche Mode

[DSA; 2005]

Styles: ambient, minimal, orchestrated, cinematic
Others: Tortoise, Town & Country, Boxhead Ensemble

It's explained clearly in the subtitle on the album, An Acoustic Tribute to Depeche Mode, and there's nothing particularly strange about the presentation of these songs. Nevertheless, Down to the Bone is confusing and raises the question of why one musician makes a whole album of cover songs by one artist. I couldn't possibly count how many people have released albums of Thelonious Monk covers, and although that usually seems perfectly okay, Chauveau covering Depeche Mode sounds more like self-indulgence than anything else. Don't get me wrong, I love cover songs, cover albums, and tribute albums; but this particular combination of one artist's tribute to another artist is a peculiar one. Although Chauveau has completely changed the arrangements and instrumentation of Depeche Mode, there's hardly ever a moment where he's adding any new perspective on these songs, and that's what separates this from a successful homage.

The best thing that has come out of listening to this is my rediscovery of Gary Jules' rendering of "Mad World" by Tears for Fears. I didn't stop to listen to the quality of this song a couple years ago, at the height of its popularity, but hearing it now, it still sounds poignant and timeless. Jules managed to reinterpret "Mad World" and put his own signature on it, while still being respectful of the original version, which seems like the goal of a cover song. His version is filled with gut-wrenching emotion and sincerity that, in retrospect, gets a little lost in the synthetic '80s production of Tears for Fears. Johnny Cash's collaboration with Rick Rubin on his last four albums produced similar results. At least half of us probably never realized that U2's "One" was an amazing song until hearing Johnny Cash find exactly what was great about it.

Chauveau strives for a similar effect as Jules, and to a lesser extent the Rubin-produced Johnny Cash (I know, comparing anyone to Johnny Cash is cruel and unfair), but he never seems as tuned into his source material. Most of the songs consist of subtle yet deeply rich vocals over stark piano arrangements, strings, and other ambience. Occasionally Chauveau also cuts up sound and throws in back-masked vocals in a style reminiscent of The Books. His vocal performance is the most dominant force of the music, and although he takes after the soulfully deadpan sound associated with Depeche Mode, he rarely sounds like he has any kind of emotional connection to the music. Occasionally his formula works; his rendition of "In Your Room" is beautiful and it sounds like he means everything he's saying. There's promise in enough of the songs to make Down to the Bone successful if it were an EP, but at full length it feels monotone and exhausting.

It should also be mentioned that Gary Jules is a man of good taste. Rather than covering "Sewing the Seeds of Love," or anything from Songs from the Big Chair, Jules went way back in the Tears for Fears catalog and found a tune that deserves to have the dust brushed off of it. When looking at the tracklisting on Down to the Bone, on the other hand, one has to wonder how invested in Depeche Mode Chauveau really is. He mostly focuses on singles that we're all too familiar with, and with the exception of "Blasphemous Rumors," tends to overlook the first half of Depeche Mode's career. Both "Free Love" and "Home" are songs that came out within the last ten years; a time when a younger generation embraced Songs of Faith and Devotion, Violator, Ultra, and Exciter, but didn't care about the history in their hip, older sibling's record collection. Ultimately, Chauveau only scratches at the surface of a catalog that deserves a much deeper investigation. However, these late '80s-'90s standards are probably just the gimmick Chauveau was looking for.

1. Stripped
2. The Things You Said
3. Home
4. Policy of Truth
5. Death's Door
6. (Enjoy) the Silence
7. In Your Room
8. Blasphermous Rumours
9. Free Love
10. Never Let Me Down Again
11. Enjoy the Silence

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