Yello – Zebra

If you could pinpoint the period when Yello really found themselves, I think 1994’s Zebra would be a decent estimate. Now eight albums into their career, they had gone through the slightly silly novelty stage, tried serious pop, motorsport-inspired energetic electronic pop, and a very strong smattering of jazz. But it was with Zebra that they truly embraced dance music – maybe not quite for the first time, but it was certainly the first time they had dived this deep.

It opens with Suite 909, a big dance piece with trance bass and tribal beats. It does feel somewhat dated now – Yello were, perhaps, never quite the sonic trailblazers that their contemporaries were. It’s technically a prelude to Tremendous Pain, which we’ll hear later. If nothing else, as an opening track, it does make for a bit of a shock to the system.

It wouldn’t be Yello if it didn’t have its sillier moments, and second single How How is one. It’s catchy and clever – it fuses jazzy elements with acid breaks and dance beats – but you also can’t stop yourself from wondering who other than Yello would ever release anything this daft.

Night Train is probably as good as this album gets. It’s dark, with throbbing, tribal beats, and lyrics that echo the nocturnal feel of the track perfectly. The samples – I don’t recognise all of them, but Alison Moyet‘s cackle from her Yazoo days is definitely one of them – complement the track perfectly. This is quite brilliant.

Lead single Do It is next (although curiously it’s pushed back to track 2 of side B on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album). This is clever, actually – it’s a classic Yello track, but with clean, simple, dance production. It’s a great single to re-introduce us to the wacky Swiss duo after the three year break that preceded this album. Remixes on the single came from Thomas Fehlmann and Mark Picchiotti, so they were in illustrious company.

I… I’m in Love is next, another classic Yello moment with huge dance beats. As with much of this album, I think it’s fair to say that it hasn’t dated particularly well, so this is perhaps more a track for those who were there at the time than it is for people discovering this act for the first time. That’s alright, although I might have to revise my beginner’s guide recommendations.

S.A.X. is a bit of a surprise on an electronic dance album, full, as you might guess, of saxophone solos and chanted lyrics, among the tribal beats. It’s great, in its own special way, because you really can’t see that anybody else would have been doing anything like this. By itself, it’s hardly contemporary, but it is at least interesting.

But Yello have always had a more serious side to them, such as the huge Lost Again a decade or so earlier. Fat Cry is hardly serious, with its pitch-tweaked backing vocals, but it does channel that atmospheric sound. In a way I’m glad they don’t do things like that all the time, as it just makes them stand out all the more, but Fat Cry does grab you in a way that some of the earlier tracks may not have. In spite of the whistling in the melody half way through.

Final single Tremendous Pain follows, with some very confusing lyrics (“How do you spell / Suite 9-0-7?”) If you’re tied to the traditional structure of an album, you’ll probably struggle to reconcile this track with opener Suite 909, but then you’ll probably be struggling with Yello anyway – they had already been dropping remixes onto albums in odd places for the last couple of albums. Tremendous Pain is a good track, with a particularly catchy chorus, but as is also sometimes the case with Yello, the impenetrable lyrics make it a difficult listen at times.

Move Dance Be Born feels very Teutonic, as though they’re channelling a certain Düsseldorf quartet. It’s great, full of squawking processed vocal samples, more tribal beats, and lots of instructions to move, dance, and be born.

This is, in a way, a fairly short album, the second half of which is reserved for darker dance territory, as The Premix (How How) follows. It is, as the name somewhat confusingly suggests, a remix of the earlier track – this time with fast beats and acid bass, alongside bizarre squelchy beats. It’s an odd remix, and maybe the name tells us that it was actually recorded before the single. It’s different enough from the other version to comfortably secure a place here, but it is a strange inclusion.

Finally comes Poom Shanka. Yello have never been scared of throwing something completely unexpected at their listeners, and this is a fine example of that. For a Swiss group to bring Indian influences is really no less incongruous than someone from Liverpool doing the same thing, but somehow something doesn’t quite seem right here. If you put that out of your mind, what you have here is a beautiful, gentle piece of music which fits well on the end of this album, but the track might be over by the time you’ve really got the hang of it. I think, in the end, I like it a lot, though.

So Zebra is classic Yello in many ways – it’s not exactly groundbreaking, because you’ll have heard most of the sounds already on earlier releases, but it was contemporary for its time, and the mix of jazz and electronic influences is, as always, spot on. It has all the trademarks – such as crazy lyrics and insane vocal delivery, but for pretty much the first time, they have tapped dance culture in a way that would never really stop on subsequent albums. It’s an essential release for Yello, just perhaps a slightly impenetrable one for those who don’t know them well.

You can still find Zebra at all major retailers.

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The Space Brothers – Shine

For a while, in the late 1990s, The Space Brothers seemed to epitomise dance music. They would appear, once or twice a year, with a one-off single that was just so catchy and memorable that you couldn’t stop yourself wondering who exactly these people were. Then, eventually, two decades ago this week, they finally appeared with their first and only album, Shine.

It opens with Your Place in the World, a sweet piece with trippy beats and heady vocals. This is not, however, a piece that would catch your imagination by itself in particular – you need to have a bit of a feel for what’s coming up already in order to understand its importance. It’s good – although some of the vocal effects are a little unsettling – and the vinyl noise particularly helps, but it wouldn’t grab you if you didn’t know what you had picked up.

The title track is different. This was the single that had launched their career just over two years earlier. The Space Brothers had already had their hands on some of the biggest Balearic summer hits at this point, and it’s apparent even just from the high portamento-driven pads that there’s something a bit different going on here. As it builds, you realise it has everything – the slightly (but not uncomfortably) acid-infused bass line, the clicking synth riff line, the huge drum builds, and, of course, that vocal.

The vocalist, for this and second hit Forgiven, is Miss Joanna Law, who was at this stage already a decade into her career. A year before Shine originally came out, she had appeared on Way Out West‘s seminal The Gift, and both there and here provided vocals that lifted the song far beyond itself. This is entirely brilliant, and provided their biggest hit, although it only just scraped the top twenty.

This is Love is next, with a surprise heavy sample from Jean-Michel Jarre‘s Oxygène (Part I). It’s encouraging to see that The Space Brothers have no shame in revealing their influences quite this openly, but it still comes as something of a surprise. It makes for a curiously understated track, with the sort of chanting that kept cropping up on dance tracks around this time.

By now, the tracks are mixing into each other thick and fast, so the huge effect-laden snares of fourth single Heaven Will Come should come as little surprise. Most of the other tracks on here star Kate Cameron on vocals, who appears to have starred on pretty much every trance hit around this time. This is one of the slower pieces, but probably one of the better ones on here.

After all of that, the guitar twirls and disco beats of I Still Love You come as something of a surprise. It builds into another bounding trance track, so whatever variety seemed to briefly be promised quickly disappears. This is not a particularly eclectic album, but it is one of the best and most coherent examples of Balearic trance to appear under a single artist’s name.

In amongst the other pieces, it’s The Light that particularly stands out. The lyrics may be a bit new age, but the vocal delivery is impressively commanding. For me, though, it’s the remix that blows me away – this album, probably appropriately, comes with a second disc, mixed by Paul Oakenfold, and featuring a remixed version of pretty much the whole album, and the trance remix of this laid back track somehow seems to work a lot better. On the main album, this is one of those pieces that builds and builds, with a lot of promise, but it never quite seems to know where it’s going.

But in spite of putting the wrong version on the main album, you can’t deny that The Space Brothers are masters of their craft. Forgiven, originally released as Forgiven (I Feel Your Love) in late 1997 (The Space Brothers seemed to be putting brackets on the end of all their singles for a while), you have to remind yourself that this would have been the difficult second single, following after Shine. It does share a lot of the same sounds, including the portamento, and even the same vocalist, but in many ways it’s a better song. Just maybe not the best choice for second single, unless you don’t mind pigeonholing yourself.

The Same Journey opens with another piece of Jean-Michel Jarre, the unsettling vocal sample from Zoolook. Having got that out of the way, it’s a spacious piece, with plenty of room for vocal acrobatics. Ultimately, it’s probably fair to say that it’s one of the less good tracks on here, but it’s not bad, by any stretch of the imagination. The bar is pretty high here.

Then it’s time for more portamento, with the third single, Legacy (Show Me Love). They set a solid formula on those first three hits, but ultimately I’m glad they deviated from it for most of the album. This is another great single track, though, and not a bad comeback after a longer break, or indeed a bad choice of single to preempt the album. It just does sound a bit as though you’ve heard it all before at this point.

After all that, closing track Beyond the Sun is anticlimactic, to say the least. Kate Cameron does her best, but she’s really only just repeating “remember” most of the time while another vocalist wails something unintelligible. This track would be filler on pretty much any album, and while it works reasonably well in context as a closing track, you can’t really see it ever fitting anywhere else.

Until that final track, though, Shine is an exceptional album – a now-timeless document of late 1990s Balearic trance, that while now somewhat dated, still stands up well. I don’t know where The Space Brothers are now, but I’d like to think they’re still sitting on a beach in Ibiza, and continuing to large it. Whatever that means.

Copies of Shine still seem to be floating around, here for example, but keep an eye out that you aren’t actually looking at the single of the same name, as there appears to be some confusion!