Recordings

The Jayhawks
Sound of Lies
(American Recordings)

It was the perfect setup, at least on the exterior: They shared songwriting credits, shared lead vocals, shared the stage until it was difficult to discern just who brought what to the party. With their old buddies in Uncle Tupelo, you could easily spot where A met B--Jeff Tweedy loved his bittersweet pop, Jay Farrar craved his old-time country, and somewhere in between, a little rustic rock 'n' roll shook out of the sheets. But no one knew what Mark Olson and Gary Louris' split would mean for the Jayhawks--whether the good Captain Kirk could exist for long without the bad Captain Kirk.

If nothing else, Sound of Lies, the band's first recording without Olson--who left to write and record with his wife, Victoria Williams, under the name Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers--proves there is indeed strength in numbers. Sound of Lies is the first 'hawks recording that doesn't unravel the more you wear it; it's one piece from weary start ("This traveling band was not well-received," Louris sings on "The Man Who Loved Life") to sarcastic middle ("I'm gonna be a big star someday") to exhilarating end ("In the middle of a dream, where time plays in between"), a rock 'n' roll recording tinged with country feedback and barroom heartbreak, Byrds echoes and Beatles reverberations.

Every song's a mini-epic, one poem after another about death and recrimination and final rebirth, and every song feeds into the one following it. The fade-out of Karen Grotberg's piano turns into the fade-in of Louris' electric guitar; the whisper of Golden Smog bandmate Kraig Johnson's acoustic guitar mutates into the fragile whine of Geraldine Fibber Jessy Green's violin. You can't listen to the recording in fragments--it's too big for that, too good to be sampled piece by small piece instead of swallowed whole.

Sound of Lies actually begins recalling the three previous Jayhawks recordings, rock 'n' roll stained in the dark hues of post-Parsons country; it sounds in its first few moments like an extension of Tomorrow the Green Grass, its offhand beauty couched in a deliberate 12-string twang. But the further you get into the album, the longer it plays and works its way under your skin, the weirder and darker and bleaker it gets. Songs such as "Sixteen Down" and "Dying on the Vine" aren't so much musical as moody; the melodies are coated in disquieting effects--chamberlin and organ swirling between the notes--and the words coalesce into disturbing images ("Gasoline it hid the deed/Not taking it for granted") and deadpan noir ("They dragged the stream/The body never to be found"). Louris has, in effect, written a detective novel, stripped away every third word, and provided his own soundtrack; and never before have the rest of the Jayhawks sounded so up for the task, every musician getting his or her turn at the microphone.

Where Olson once provided the sweet harmonies, the Gram to Louris' Emmylou, Louris is now free to bend and break his oddly gorgeous voice without someone else standing in the way (though drummer Tim O'Reagan does handle lead on his own "Bottomless Cup," while the band provides its own warm blanket of harmony). Whether singing of suicides born of love ("Think About It") or a woman who stirs "a tin cup with a silver spoon" ("It's Up to You"), Louris possesses a voice almost like that of the Geraldine Fibbers' Carla Bozulich--one that's neither male nor female, connected nor distant. He's not the narrator or the subject of his desperate poems, but he is somehow part of the story. Olson made him sound pretty, but alone; Louris sounds much more substantive and much more spectral--more like a shadow on the wall, always present but hard to get ahold of. The same could be said of Sound of Lies, a recording as easy to grasp as fog and as unshakable as air.

--Robert Wilonsky

Depeche Mode
Ultra
(Mute/Reprise)

Depeche Mode would seem like a particularly dead duck from the '80s, a band simply incapable of reinventing itself. For proof, listen again to Songs of Faith and Devotion from 1993, in which the fey pride of Basildon, England, dived into the mosh pit and landed squarely on its head.

Though tricked up with new sound effects, the old Depeche Mode is back in time for the fast-approaching millennium. It's hard to begrudge these guys one more surf on the latest wave of electronica, especially since Martin Gore and Dave Gahan are both recent survivors of excess. Gahan, of course, has tried to kill himself twice--once with a razor blade, then with a heroin overdose--and Gore's head almost exploded during the band's last decadent tour. Multi-instrumentalist Alan Wilder has since departed, and although keyboardist Andy Fletcher still shows up to provide critical mass in publicity photos, he hasn't been musically active since Ronald Reagan was president.

For Ultra, producer Tim Simenon (Bomb the Bass) assumes the role played by Howie B. for U2--the hip young guy hired to make Depeche Mode relevant in the late '90s. And Ultra does sound better than any DM album in this decade, though I'm less impressed by the now-cliched helicopter chop that opens Ultra than by the artful use of acoustic slide guitar and pedal steel nine and 10 tracks deep. As techno-pop pioneers, these guys are more comfortable in a synthetic setting than U2 is on "Mofo," but really they're just the dark-pop parallel of Bono and Co. They achieved stardom with their stadium-strength anthems, and Ultra still delivers the goods more convincingly than any half-band should; Gore writes the songs, Gahan sings them, and guest keyboardist Dave Clayton programs them with a chilly self-assurance.

No one who overdosed on DM in the past decade will be seduced by sleek updates such as the jittery surge of "Barrel of a Gun" and "It's No Good" or the mechanized blues of "Useless" and "Sister of Night." Still, they're sturdy songs, and Gahan's mock-operatic voice has even gained some surprising depth. Ballads predominate here, but the only time the effect is cloying is on "The Love Thieves," which reeks of Big '80s nostalgia. A whiff of desperation can be found in ambient throwaways such as "Uselink" and "Jazz Thieves," which ape the arty atmospherics of any number of faceless DJs.

What distinguishes Gore from most techno pretenders is his ability to write real songs--a distinction unimportant only to hipsters sucked in by the likes of Spring Heel Jack. True, there's not much substance in lyrics such as "Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me," but Gahan's sad, slow recitation gives them a power more fatalistic than hopeful. Half the fans who filled the Depeche Rose Bowl shows in the late '80s have already moved on, and the Chemical Brothers have dethroned them as synth heroes of the moment. Ultra may be the sound of a multiplatinum empire in decline, but there's a bruised beauty to it that can't be dismissed.

--Keith Moerer

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