Blog 641: An Unbroken Frame

It was a cover version that first got me into music. I mean, I had some passing interest in some songs before, but it was Erasure’s cover of Solsbury Hill that turned on the taps. I remember I was playing Unreal Tournament mod Operation: Na Pali when I first heard it.

Marsheaux have always been good at doing cover versions. Some, like their idea of timeless synthstrumental Popcorn, might be obvious because they’re famous tunes, but others from off the beaten track you wouldn’t even know were covers without somebody telling you, because they all nestle so well amongst their original work.

So when they said they were going to cover an entire album for their next project, what was I to think? Especially when they made the so very… interesting choice of Depeche Mode’s difficult second album, A Broken Frame.

A Broken Frame

I never particularly cared for A Broken Frame. There’s a marked absence in the recording, a weakness that was not present among the strident melodies of Depeche Mode’s debut Speak and Spell — it’s fairly clear that when Vince Clarke left the band he took all the good synths with him and the rest of the crew didn’t quite know what to do.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad album, but it feels very timid, somehow under-developed. The stand-out track for me, instrumental Nothing to Fear, has a build-up that promises something powerful but collapses into a gentle burble. A lovely melody and all the background nuances of a properly great tune are lost in the softness of the arrangement.

Is it a problem of production or writing? It’s hard to say. Atmospheric album closer The Sun and the Rainfall might benefit from the wispy arrangement, but a lot of the others really need some life.

All in all, it’s the kind of album you put on in the morning at a low volume so you don’t disturb the neighbours. There is definitely content of value here but it’s not one I’d put in the bomb-proof crate to save for future generations.

Lego Grievous only rates it 3 lightsabres out of a possible 12.
Lego Grievous only rates it 3 lightsabres out of a possible 12.

A Broken Frame

Enter Marsheaux, the only post-millenial band that I have followed consistently (take from that what you will), who bring to A Broken Frame the raw energy it lacked the first time around. They have created a mix of faithful rerecordings and staggering rearrangements, which quite simply leaves the original recordings spluttering in the dust.

Perhaps the clearest point of comparison that highlights the flaws in the original album is the synth solo at the end of opening track Leave In Silence. I’m not sure if it’s a straight sample or they’ve played the same notes on a very similar synth, but they’ve added much more of an edge to it — the original Leave In Silence finishes by meandering quietly into the distance, its solo peeping out from behind bushes hoping not to annoy anyone too much. Marsheaux have made it richer, more confident, and to me that is ultimately more engaging.

More lightsabres, more!
More lightsabres, more!

Of course I was most excited to hear what they did to Nothing to Fear. My favourite missed opportunity — but no longer. Oh, sweet rapture, no longer.

Most of life is defined by the synth lead. You can make or break a melody by playing it on the wrong instrument, and there’s no clearer example of this than Nothing to Fear. Marsheaux have set it up with a more fitting home than the muted plinks that birthed it, using a properly blistering square wave. Shit is heavy, and with the thunderous backing beats it has now reached its true potential as a floor-filling titan, perfectly suited for lasering off the roof on a Saturday afternoon. Bring me my glow-sticks.

It’s not all faithful reconstructions with the missing ingredients plopped in, though. A Photograph of You was a hyperactive little pop song the first time around, but is now a slow, brooding come-down, its slightly tongue-in-cheek lyrics turned into a melancholic sob story. Different, but overall much less disposable.

To top if off, they’ve also covered two B-sides, Now This Is Fun and Oberkorn (It’s a Small Town). Unfortunately, my copy of the original A Broken Frame is an older remaster without bonus tracks, so I’ve not had much experience with the original versions of these. Either way, Oberkorn is a gloomy instrumental that sounds like it could have come off the soundtrack of Unreal — a point which brings this blog to a neat full-circle conclusion. Most of life, after all, seems to revolve around Unreal.

An Extended Broken Frame

Except there are two CDs in this deluxe package! Why make an album when you can make two, one of which is composed entirely of extended remixes?

Unfortunately it doesn’t include a 10-minute version of Nothing to Fear; they only take it up to 6 and sadly haven’t chosen to extend the central melody. Oh well, bonus is bonus — plenty of other tracks have additional instrumental noodling applied, and most have more divergent rearrangements that take them further from the source material in their extension. If Marsheaux bring these bonus breaks into their next home-baked album we’ll be in for a real treat.

All in all, then, a resounding success. Cover versions don’t often surpass their originals, and to surpass 12 tracks in one outing is quite something, even if the original material was a little bit wobbly in the first place. Whenever anyone says A Broken Frame to me now, I will think not of Depeche Mode, but of Marsheaux.

And you tell me...

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