Sylvain Chauveau: Down To the Bone

I'll admit to some degree of trepidation prior to hearing Sylvain Chauveau's 'Depeche Mode' album, not for the chamber music concept itself but for the fact that the Paris-based musician wouldn't be playing piano but rather guitar and…singing. What I had expected would be nuanced instrumental re-castings of the group's material became fear that Chauveau's singing, however well-intentioned, might be a pale, second-rate Dave Gahan imitation. How wonderful, then, to report that Chauveau's singing is not only unaffected and tuneful, but generally avoids aping Gahan altogether (though some hint of kinship emerges during “In Your Room” and “Blasphemous Rumours”); if anything, Chauveau's sonorous, earnest delivery has more in common with Martin Gore (plus David Sylvain at times and Hunky Dory-era David Bowie on “Home”). As it turns out, the project represents a return of sorts to Chauveau's beginnings, as he spent several years as a rock singer and guitarist before garnering broader attention with piano recordings like 2003's Un autre décembre.

He's backed by Ensemble Nocturne, a classically-trained quintet whose piano, clarinet, and strings offer elegantly restrained accompaniment throughout. Instrumental touches (like the bright glimmer of vibes that adds resonant colour to “Policy of Truth”) are subtle, though Aurélien Besnard's clarinet playing deserves mention with the instrument's solo voice distinguishing “The Things You Said” and “In Your Room” and brightening “Home” with a jazzy coda. Depeche Mode's material ably survives the 'classical' makeover, though the dark and sexual dimensions of the originals largely vanish in the translation; “Stripped,” for example, is now less an aggressive command of domination than a gentle entreaty (“Let me see you stripped down to the bone”) while the oppressive threat of the original “Policy of Truth” turns even-tempered. Though strings draw out the sombre and mournful qualities of “Never Let Me Down Again” and desperation does flood through “Death's Door,” the album's 44 minutes are largely melancholic but otherwise trouble-free.

Chauveau's approach is blessedly free of irony: at no time does it feel as if the musicians are lampooning the material but instead expressing sincere affection for it, an impression confirmed by the album's subtitle An Acoustic Tribute to Depeche Mode (not wholly true, as electronic treatments sometimes surface, like stuttering edits in “Blasphemous Rumours” and “Free Love,” for instance). Of course, the chamber approach means that the propulsive character of the synth-heavy originals is absent, rendering Chauveau's interpretations more ponderous, even meditative by comparison. Even so, the tribute succeeds marvelously with the acoustic arrangements bringing warmth to Depeche Mode's chillier sound.

December 2005