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.

Erasure – Pop! Remixed

Ten years ago this week saw the release of Erasure‘s slightly odd remix album/EP Pop! Remixed. Packaged as CDMUTE405, the catalogue styling normally used by Mute Records for singles, it appears that it was originally intended to be released as a four-track EP, a version which did end up being released as a download version. The CD, though, was a ten track album, with an odd mixture of new and old mixes.

It opens with the entirely pointless 2009 Mix of the lovely Always. It is slightly different from the original, with a punchier bass and some improved squawks in the background, but the only difference that the casual listener will spot is the inexplicable omission of an “and” from the first chorus. It was there in the original, and you’ll never quite get used to its absence in this version. But grab yourself a decent pair of headphones, and there’s plenty to enjoy here in its place.

Komputer turn up as the first guest remixer to tackle Victim of Love. They were, obviously and unsurprisingly, big Erasure fans, and so they have changed relatively little here. It would have been a great mix, if it had been released in 1987, and honestly it’s fine for 2009 too – it’s just a little unambitious. Komputer are the people who, most recently, were to be found experimenting with post-Kraftwerk electronics, but there’s little sign of that here.

It’s nice to hear Freedom on here, as Erasure‘s Loveboat era tends to get forgotten somewhat – perhaps justifiably so. Mark Picchiotti has clearly had a lot of fun with this version, turning it into a flamenco mix, with some added guitar work. Part of the problem is the source material, to be honest – Freedom is fine as a song, but it isn’t great. The other part is that Picchiotti isn’t a flamenco guitarist – his forte is overlong, over-repetitive, dull house, and so inevitably this mix is a bit of a mess. Not an unpleasant mess, but it would have been much better to have kept it as a short novelty on the original single rather than a full mix on this compilation.

Drama!, long overlooked by Erasure themselves, gets an overdue remix from Andy Bell himself, aided by DJ Jason Creasey. It’s a bit more contemporary than any of the tracks we’ve heard up to this point, but there’s also little new here. At this point, you could be forgiven for wondering why Erasure bothered with this release at all, but it’s worth remembering that in 2009 they were still in the throes of the creative downturn that had first hit them with the aforementioned Loveboat at the start of the decade. Just three studio albums had appeared in that time (plus Andy Bell‘s first solo effort), and, despite some brighter moments, the quality was never quite up to the standard of the preceding decade.

One-off collaboration Avantara turn up next, for a banging but somewhat dull remix of A Little Respect. The song works well to a huge Euro beat, but there just isn’t a lot of variation between each section here – it sounds a bit like Euro-by-numbers. Then Swedish producers SoundFactory turn up to tweak Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day), and do a slightly better job, although again, there’s little to write home about.

Finally, a mix that actually hits the mark. Soil in the Synth‘s reworking of Ship of Fools is brilliantly glitchy without being challenging to listen to, and spacious in a 1980s way, without being too long. It’s quite brilliant – if there was a reason to buy this release, this surely must be it.

Erasure‘s fascination with Manhattan Clique during this era has always been a bit of a mystery to me – they’re fine, they definitely have good taste, and they know how to jazz up an eighties or nineties classic. They’re also a bit formulaic, to say the least – they occupy a similar space in the world of music as Richard X, except because he’s always doing soundclashes, at least his tracks don’t all sound the same. As “always”, Manhattan Clique‘s take on Always is fine, even if it does sound a little too much like a chipmunk remix at times – but it does sound exactly the same as all their other mixes. Which is fine, if you like that kind of thing.

Next, Electronic Periodic take on Chorus, with a few naff handclaps added in, for some reason. Oddly, the deeply analogue sound of Chorus makes it seem a little more contemporary than most of the tracks here, but the handclaps don’t really give the retro charm that was likely intended, and the weird gaps in the vocals don’t entirely work. Some of the extra sound effects do, though, so this is really a bit of a mixed bag – like this release as a whole.

Finally, closing this release out, Vince Clarke himself turns up to remix Stop! It’s an odd candidate to take on, and I can imagine he probably enjoyed the challenge of trying to turn it into something more contemporary and modern. It just about works – I’ve never been entirely convinced by this song, but if you like it and aren’t too protective about the original, I can imagine you would enjoy this remix. For me, it just about makes the grade. If nothing else, it has a good bouncy beat and bass line.

So Pop! Remixed doesn’t exactly come with the strongest recommendation, but it’s not bad either. Unlike their Club remix EP, which was finally commercially released around the same time, I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy, but it’s not something I would be rushing to get rid of

You can still find Pop! Remixed at all major retailers, at a bargain price.