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New Tunes On Monday: Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, and Ziggy Marley with Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Toots Hibbert, and Jamie Lee Curtis

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Depeche Mode - Sounds Of The Universe

In contrast with the brooding world we normally associate with Depeche Mode, Sounds Of The Universe sounds downright cheery. This time around the stars, Martin Gore, Andy Flectcher and producer/engineer Ben Hillier--with a cast of a thousand synthesizers--generate a textured, otherworldly atmosphere that our captain, singer Dave Gahan, mostly navigates us through with nary a nick on the vehicle. As always, Depeche Mode takes its subject matter seriously, even though there is a fair amount of joy (or as close as these guys can get) within.

Though the first track, "In Chains," immediately establishes the PMQ (personal misery quotient), on "Hole To Feed" (go on, giggle, you know you want to), we get just enough robotic Bo Diddley on hallucinogens to establish we're at a party. Its lyrics, "...your words are the kindness that set me free, you open my eyes to a world that I could believe" have us high-tenning Gahan for checking-out happiness for a nanosecond. But by the next song and first single, "Wrong" (you know what's coming), the singer reminds us, "I was born with the wrong sign in the wrong house, with the wrong ascendancy, I took the wrong road that led to the wrong tendencies is there something wrong with me chemically." (Well, it's about baby steps, right?) Midway through our journey, we take a little "Spacewalk" that might suggest someone had a little Santo & Johnny's "Sleep Walk" on their iPod. But right before that song comes a pair of the album's most upbeat tracks: "Come Back," that assures some anonymous person Gahan will "be waiting patiently" for him or her, and "Peace," that insists, "Peace will come to me, I'm leaving bitterness behind, this time, I'm cleaning out my mind...I'm going to light up the world, peace will come to me." All remains suspiciously well until he sings, "...but I'm a living act of phoniness," and it appears we've returned to the morose; but wait, he chases it with, "Given all the positivity that I possess, I'm going to light up the world."

Actually, for anyone who had any of their lifespan in the eighties, this is more of a sonic time-warp than a cosmic journey as the title implies. Martin Gore's lyrics (and three by David Gahan and company) do embrace cosmic themes here and there, but Sounds Of The Universe is more about inner space than outer space. On "Perfect," Gore tells us, "On another world, by another star, at another place and time, in another state of consciousness, in another state of mind, everything was almost perfect, everything fell into place." Following this blatant display of esoteria, when "Jezebel" says, "They call you Jezebel...you're going straight to hell for wanton acts of sin...but I need you just this way," the misogyny isn't as convincing. And "Corrupt"'s "I could crush you in a heartbeat, you think you're special, think you're so sweet...I could crush, it would be easy, watching you suffer, ooh girl, it would please me" is ludicrous. Overall, the boys have a more mellow than morose trip through Sound's audioverse. So suit up, Depechians, and be warned, you're going to want to play Duran Duran's "Save A Prayer" after your initial listen; or Orchestral Maneuvers In The Dark; then, maybe a-ha, or ABC. But you won't be segueing it with Morrissey or The Smiths, that's for sure.

By the way, purchasing Sounds Of The Universe could be a bit overwhelming. There are so many variants, and they are all so flooded with additional goodies, you'll wonder both "Who the heck is buying these super-deluxe packages in this economy?" and "Where do I get mine?" Really, they have every configuration in existence covered including a digital download version with two bonus tracks (a remixed "Wrong" as well as "Oh Well"), vinyl (a double album with a CD version), a CD/DVD (that features two music videos, 5.1 audio, plus extra tracks), a deluxe box set (with a second CD of remixes, a third CD of demos, and an expanded DVD, badges, artcards, two hard cover books, a poster, and lots more), and an inflatable Milky Way galaxy that houses a USB containing MP3s of everything this group has ever recorded including solo albums...no, not really, but sounds cool, huh? Maybe on their next trip through the universe...

Tracklist:
1. In Chains
2. Hole To Feed
3. Wrong
4. Fragile Tension
5. Little Soul
6. In Sympathy
7. Peace
8. Come Back
9. Spacewalker
10. Perfect
11. Miles Away / The Truth Is
12. Jezebel
13. Corrupt

Pet Shop Boys - Yes

Okay, either the champagne's flowing a bit too generously, or someone's out of Dom. On the title track, our well-kept and expensively-coiffed rent boys sing something akin to "all you need is love," how we need more than "a big blank cheque to be a lover or a gulf stream jet to fly us door to door," and how we don't need to be...get this...beautiful. Something is terribly, terribly right here. Yes, it seems that on their latest album, Yes, our penthouse-hoppers are having a dance-poppin' good time in the shadow of the New Depression.

Despite Neil Tennant's (and therefore, co-writer and fellow Pet, Chris Lowe's) insistence that he wants to live like the "Beautiful People" in a "sun-shining, money-spending, green and healthy new world," the translation is about a hopeful future, the intention is good (fyi, he's talking about the ability to spend any money again). The song also seems like the reconstruction period following "More Than A Dream" whose lyrics "I believe we can change, we can make it more than a dream...we can change, it's not as strange as it might seem" show our pampered pair's perspective might be evolving; and though it apparently is written purely about a relationship, a couple songs later, we hear "If I were the King of Rome, I couldn't be more tragic, my fate to roam so far from home, in search of my lost magic," possibly implying that the Pet Shop Boys are...growing up?

Nah. For every semi-enlightened, pop-i-sophical ponderance, there are two or three adolescent toss-offs that reveal the duo's true level of maturity. Still, it wouldn't hurt Neil and Chris to listen to Billy Joel's old but currently applicable song "I've Loved These Days" for another era's perspective on a culture gone broke. Then again, we really never demanded too much from our Pet Shop Boys beyond supplying synth-y, sonic scenery to our upwardly mobile lifestyles--and, along the way, occasional, quirky riffs, like when the "Nutcracker" melody is Darth Vadered-up to become the main hook on "All Over The World." The music, as always, is rich in arrangements, well-produced and performed, and aspires to reach greater heights as the lyrics dig around here and there for some depth. So, did the Pet Shop Boys deliver one of their best albums to date? Yes, they did. But can they record a project more relevant to the state of the world beyond dance clubs? Yes, they can, and probably should.

Tracklist:

CD
1. Love, Etc.
2. All Over The World
3. Beautiful People
4. Did You See Me Coming?
5. Vulnerable
6. More Than A Dream
7. Building A Wall
8. King Of Rome
9. Pandemonium
10. The Way It Used To Be
11. Legacy

Limited Edition Bonus Disc
1. This Used To Be The Future
2. More Than A Dream - Magical dub
3. Pandemonium - The Stars And The Sun dub
4. The Way It Used To Be - Left Of Love dub
5. All Over The World - This Is A dub
6. Vulnerable - Public Eye dub
7. Love, Etc. - Beautiful dub

Ziggy Marley - Family Time

On Family Time, Grammy-award winning Ziggy Marley has created a gentle batch of "children's" recordings, bred with intelligence and respect for adult and child. The album's reggae almost masks its purpose, it being a great cross-generational bridge for the whole brood. It was helmed by superstar record producer, Don Was, and although some songs include potentially overshadowing celebrities such as Willie Nelson, their presence serves as extended family members who are mindful of their subtle mission. The intentional exception is "Walk Tall" that features vocals by Paul Simon whose voice and phrasings seem interchangeable with Marley's in what is a great game of audio hide and seek.

No stranger to the genre, the son of Bob and Rita is a member of reggae's first family, and has supplied music to many children's projects, including cable station Nick Jr.'s Dora The Explorer, the PBS series Arthur, and a version of his dad's "Three Little Birds" for Shark Tale (in which he also played Bernie the Jamaican jellyfish). "Growing up, music was an important part of my childhood," Marley stated in a March press release. "I see it being just as important in my children and in all children's growth and development. Music helps children grow with open minds and open hearts, and this is my message." All eleven musical tracks reach that goal, and the two Jamie Lee Curtis narrations serve as super-quick bedtime stories before tucking the project in.

Wisely avoiding stereotypical, squeaky-voiced pandering, Marley sings to both the kids and the grownups in the room. His clever "Ziggy Says" is much more engaging than your run-of-the-mill "Simon Says" since he requests, "Imagine you can fly," "Make the sign of peace," "Stop and say,'Hi!'," and "Hug who you know," as matter-of-factly as he sings, "Wiggle your toes." Toots, without his Maytals, adds some local flavor to "Take Me To Jamaica," and some popular children's entertainers stop by, such as Elizabeth Mitchell, Laurie Berkner, and the genre's latest addition, Jack Johnson. The most interesting guest is Willie Nelson whose vocals come off like a wise ol' grandpa, the kind who can utter three words and get you to absorb a book's worth of knowledge. That's what he brings to the mic on Woody Guthrie's "This Train." And one of the more profound tracks is "Cry, Cry, Cry" on which Marley sings "set the children free." Although this song is overtly about imagination and such, it is also a thinly-veiled protest song with a global context. But mainly, as the title track says, the album has a simple message: "Lift up your hearts with a smile, lift up your feet with a dance, lift up your spirits with a song, it's Family Time."

Tracklist:
1. Family Time - with Judah Marley (daughter)
2. I Love You Too - with Rita Marley (mom) & Cedella Marley (sister)
3. Cry, Cry, Cry - with Jack Johnson & Paula Fuga
4. Take Me To Jamaica - with Toots Hibbert
5. Ziggy Says
6. This Train - with Willie Nelson
7. Wings Of An Eagle - with Elizabeth Mitchell
8. ABC
9. Hold 'Em Joe
10. Walk Tall - with Paul Simon
11. Future Man, Future Lady - with Laurie Berkner
12. My Helping Hands - narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis
13. Is There Really A Human Race - narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis