CD Review of Speak & Spell Collector's Edition by Depeche Mode

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Speak & Spell Collector's Edition
starstarhalf starno starno star Label: Rhino/Sire
Released: 1981/2006
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In retrospect, Depeche Mode's debut album sounds kind of like a flouncy Devo knockoff, loaded with Moogs, Arps, and other analog synthesizer behemoths that look scarily rudimentary compared to even the sampled $39 keyboards gathering dust on the shelves at Sam's Club. (It wasn't until later albums that the band pounded out more powerful techno grooves verging on industrial, which added much backbone to its music.)

But at the time he signed them in 1980, as Sire Records founder – and linchpin to Depeche's ascent – Seymour Stein put it in “Do We Really Have To Give Up Our Day Jobs?”, the documentary included in this new reissue of the band's debut album, you couldn't listen to any of the other synth-based pop bands of the time for an hour, live, without falling asleep. That's why he made the pilgrimage to Basildon, the sleepy city of not quite 100,000, where Vince Clarke, David Gahan and their pals were laying down techno tracks that mirrored their live gigs. That element of their music fueled their popularity – while other bands were studio creations that didn't translate well to the stage, Depeche did the opposite, stage-testing their technopop tunes and later doing their best to recreate it in the studio. That, and Stein's dogged pursuit of the group, flying across the pond to see them in their lil’ ole hometown, which impressed even the at-the-time fashionable arties.

And that's the key to Depeche Mode: Whether you're gay or not, whether you're into cheesy synth pop or not, you gotta admit the band had this je ne sais crois that transcended whatever technology stood behind them, which at one time included the 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape machine they lugged into Rough Trade's offices to play their demo. While Rough Trade turned up its collective nose, Mute Records and Stein recognized a winner in the peppy youth. They slowly built a fan base from the early singles on this record, including "Just Can't Get Enough," the classic cut from Speak & Spell that still sounds catchy a quarter-century later.

The two-disc set offers enough good meat to give Depeche junkies a great ride: The hairdos, the documentary, the background information of their formative days in Basildon, viewed not with nostalgic hindsight of the E! network but with serious consideration for historical context: What was a Moog and Arp? How did the boys use those tools to make their own music, as opposed to many other bands of the era, who started with the weird honks and toots they invented and wrote songs around them? Who the hell created the abortion of a record cover, what was he thinking, and how much did he get paid? All these questions are answered, and while it's not our job to play spoiler, let's just say David Gahan's probably thinking what you're thinking: the cover sucks.

While the music is what it is – and we're not here to rate the music, because nothing new can be written about the record itself – we will say the reissue package is a mixed bag. The short film features Vince Clarke heavily as it should; he only was in the band for a year, at which time he quit and formed Erasure. But it was Clarke's band, much like the Buzzcocks were Howard DeVoto's creative force even though he wasn't around when the band made it big. The vintage pictures and video in the film really set the context for the rise of Depeche, and the filmmakers dug deep to interview even the bit players who played a role in the making of the band.

That's the good part.

Where the package falls short is in the packaging and sequencing. Like most good reissues, there are bonus tracks here. Sadly, they're packed away on the bonus DVD. Last I checked, when you buy a CD at a record store, you put the disc in your CD player. Want the bonus tracks on your car CD, maybe your audiophile CD rig at home? Maybe even you're one of those types who feels ripping a CD track to MP3 is a sampling travesty of the original artwork? You're out of luck, pal. Watch the DVD – and listen to the tracks – over your TV speakers. Unless you have a home theater setup, which most audiophiles (myself included) despise for the artificial signal processing it applies a musician's original work, distorting the original sonic intentions. The booklet, while tastefully done, features little more than lyrics and some pictures. Eh.

~Mojo Flucke, PhD