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POP MUSIC REVIEW

From Depeche, a lighter plate of angst a la Mode

November 23, 2005|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

What is it about L.A. and D.M.?

That's Los Angeles, the California city that's musically identified with the sunshine pop of the Beach Boys, and Depeche Mode, the veteran English band that's synonymous with dark, brooding electronic rock.

Despite that apparent polarity, the group's popularity here dwarfs its following anywhere else in the U.S. There have been landmark moments -- the full house at the Rose Bowl in 1988, the riot at the record-store signing two years later -- and though that kind of hysteria might have abated, Depeche Mode is still disproportionately devoured in Los Angeles.

Its new album, "Playing the Angel," has sold nearly twice as many copies here (more than 30,000) as it has in its second-strongest market, New York. Similarly, its current arena tour consists almost entirely of one-night stands, but in the L.A. area it has three sold-out concerts this week: Monday and Tuesday's stops at Staples Center and tonight's show at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim.

But maybe it's not really such an odd match if you go beyond the stereotypes. After all, Angelenos should be allowed to enjoy a little angst, and the Depeche Mode that played Monday at Staples was hardly a dark cloud of misery.

True, the words "pain ... torment ... woe ... worry" skittered across text screens on a huge orb at one side of the stage, but they seemed almost an ironic counterpoint to the celebratory feeling from a mainstream-looking crowd conspicuously devoid of black-clad goths and visibly suicidal cases.

The concert wasn't a major departure from the Mode mode, but 25 years into the band's career, with its internal upheavals and personal crises apparently behind it, there's a survivor's spirit increasingly on display. Perhaps inevitably, some of the early songs' original, existential urgency has faded, replaced by a less-challenging nostalgia.

Helping cover for that transition is the fact that this show benefits from some of Depeche Mode's best new material in a long time, helping make the set something more than a perfunctory mix of old favorites (all the way back to the perky new wave of 1981's "Just Can't Get Enough") and token new tunes.

In fact, they opened with two songs from "Playing the Angel": the vintage-sounding "A Pain That I'm Used To" and the gospel-fueled "John the Revelator."

The latter was especially potent, with a provocative twist to the classic Southern spiritual theme (the band doesn't much care for the prophet's Book of the Apocalypse) and a jubilant refrain that let singer David Gahan shake his raised hands like a transported preacher.

Those gospel and blues currents often merged with the band's electronic underpinnings to melt some of the frost that tends to chill their music. But for a group with the image of a strictly synth-pop operation, Depeche Mode sounded pretty organic and down to earth for much of the show, thanks to the prominence of live drums and chief songwriter Martin Gore's rock guitar.

Gahan was really the key to the concert's dynamism. The singer looked like a scrawny rockabilly cat and spun like a Broadway chorus boy, asserting a commanding but unpretentious personality. With Gahan in charge, such moments as the audience sing-along in "Personal Jesus" came off with the perfect arena-rock balance of epic and intimate.

These segments also helped the band escape the gravity of its sometimes ponderous introspection. Depeche Mode might have influenced the likes of Nine Inch Nails, but these days it doesn't seem to have any interest in taking its fans on that kind of harrowing, cathartic ride.

*

Depeche Mode

Where: Arrowhead Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim

When: 8 tonight

Price: Sold out

Contact: (714) 704-2500

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