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EW review: Depeche's 'Angel' hits highs

Also: OK Nickelback, empty Wonder

By Raymond Fiore
Entertainment Weekly

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Stevie Wonder

(Entertainment Weekly) -- There's a nostalgic comfort to be found in the ear-shredding buzz-saw alarm that revs up Depeche Mode's 12th studio album.

It's a reminder that after 25 years, the band can still -- with a few hundred meticulous knob twirls and a sprinkling of computer dust -- craft the sort of industrial-Goth sounds that dial in to the fragile psyche of our inner self-loathing 13-year-old.

Though Depeche Mode began as new-wave dance tarts and endured an early-'90s apex (and near implosion) as stadium-size alterna-gods, they now seem to be quietly settling into a role as the elder statesmen of electronic angst.

Given the commercial success of young synth-heavy bands like the Killers, it seems like a perfect time for a splashy Depeche Mode comeback. (Their last two albums, 1997's "Ultra: and 2001's "Exciter," failed to ultra-excite anyone beyond hardcore fans, though the latter's gently soulful suite of ditties deserves another spin.)

And "Playing the Angel" turns out to be their most self-assured and accessible release in over a decade, with highs not heard since the gloomy heyday of 1990's "Violator."

But now the bad news: The album also hits a few spirit-sapping lows, tripping up on sluggish, self-indulgent ballads that prevent the band from truly reclaiming peak form.

But darn it, they come mighty close at times. If only all of the songs oozed pretty pain like the first single ''Precious,'' an exquisitely understated ode to busted love. It's easily their most memorable track since "Violator's" sweeping dance hit ''Enjoy the Silence.''

Hearing vulnerable lead singer Dave Gahan's detached lament over the subtly busy midtempo beat produces a musical moment that might actually appeal to both tortured teens and adults -- proving it is possible for dance acts to age gracefully. (And even grow -- for the first time in the group's history, Gahan has contributed a few songs of his own, and the resulting three tracks are, surprisingly, among the album's strongest.)

While such elegant moping is engrossing throughout the album's first five songs (the rousing electro-gospel celebration ''John the Revelator'' and the dark techno bounce of ''Suffer Well'' evoke their hip-shaking '87-'90 golden era without stooping to self-derivation), the my-soul-is-corrupt-so-won't-you-redeem-me lyrical script and melodramatic compositions sometimes drag after the first half.

Particularly egregious are a pair of tunes (''Macrovision'' and ''Damaged People'') sung by Martin Gore, the band's main songwriter. Depeche fans have come to expect a few Gore-fronted ballads on every album, and his sensitive vocals usually act as a foil to Gahan's rough-hewn croon. But on these offending tunes, ornate arrangements and trembling vibrato ramblings about ''depraved souls'' and the ''whispering cosmos'' finally feel like one pretentious sin too many.

But even "Angel's" more plodding numbers provide some great moments, as the music occasionally veers into arresting extended codas that easily dwarf the preceding tunes. That actually makes sense in the larger picture: It wouldn't be Depeche Mode if they didn't sometimes go astray and then find redemption, whether it's within a five-minute pop song, a quarter-century career, or a flawed comeback disc that still manages to inflict some satisfying pain.

EW Grade: B

'All the Right Reasons,' Nickelback

Reviewed by Whitney Pastorek

Those convinced that Nickelback has given us one of the century's greatest rock songs (''How You Remind Me'') will find quite a bit to like on "All the Right Reasons."

The band is exploring a richer, more diverse sound (ripping off both Hoobastank and Seal), and the first single, ''Photograph,'' is a dreamy slice of autumn-weather radio rock that's sure to linger well into winter. Maybe 17 million Nickelback fans really can't be wrong.

EW Grade: B

'A Time to Love,' Stevie Wonder

Reviewed by Raymond Fiore

Few artists will ever rival Stevie Wonder's scary-great crop of groundbreaking 1970s works. Unfortunately, his first album in 10 years, "A Time to Love," feels like "Stevie Wonder: The Musical," a tedious revue of diluted funk knockoffs.

Wonder once brought soul a caffeinated jolt of fearlessness and moral authority, but these toothless, '80s-embalmed tracks -- like the unfortunately titled ''Passionate Raindrops'' -- are the aural equivalent of Sleepytime tea.

EW Grade: C


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