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.

Depeche Mode – Sounds of the Universe (Bonus Tracks & Remixes)

Depeche Mode don’t release a lot of b-sides, and when they do, they are a little intriguing. On the back of their 2009 comeback single Wrong, they included the jaunty and intriguing Oh Well, and then proceeded to follow it up with a whole album of b-sides and remixes as the second disc of Sounds of the Universe. It appeared ten years ago this week, and we reviewed the first disc exactly five years ago this week.

It opens with Light, which is pretty good. Definitely b-side material, but good nonetheless. It’s a catchy song, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it should have been on an album. The Sun and the Moon and the Stars is nice, though, and sees principle songwriter Martin L. Gore delivering the lead vocal. In many ways, with the bleak electro backing, it sounds like something from his solo back catalogue, and again, I’m not sure it’s really Depeche Mode album material, but it’s a nice song, and it’s always good to get another Gore vocal.

This was, of course, the era when Dave Gahan, coming back from his solo material, was now able to contribute to the songwriting progress as well. So, having contributed three tracks to the main album (Hole to Feed, Come Back, and Miles Away / The Truth Is), there wasn’t quite as much space for Gore’s material. So most of what’s on the second disc is his, and normally with a Gahan vocal.

Ghost is another of these, with a catchy vocal and some wonderfully dark electronic backing. You can tell the quality is high here though – again, while Sounds of the Universe is far from Depeche Mode‘s finest hour, the standard is actually pretty high – and Ghost isn’t quite up there.

But we do get a decent range of Depeche Mode‘s signature sounds here – and one of the less well known of those is Martin L. Gore‘s abstract instrumentals, of which Esque is one. Running at just over two minutes, it’s a pleasant interlude, which tends to be pretty much all they’re ever used for, but it’s a good example of the style.

Let’s face it, though – Oh Well is the reason you’re interested in this bonus disc. Frankly, why this wasn’t on the main album is a bit of a mystery to me – maybe they just didn’t quite feel it fit somehow. This is, though, the first ever songwriting collaboration between Dave Gahan and Martin L. Gore, and it also features a joint vocal from the two of them, alongside some gloriously dirty electronics. It’s brilliant – better, actually, than several of the tracks on the main release.

That’s it for the bonus tracks – the remaining tracks are all remixes, and of an odd selection of tracks. First up, Efdemin turn up for a dubby (but full-vocal) mix of Corrupt. It’s alright, but Depeche Mode remixes are often pretty inscrutable, and this is a good example of that. It’s fairly relaxed, fully of soft beats and vocal samples, and not a huge amount else.

Minilogue‘s Earth mix of In Chains is easier to understand, reworking the opening track from the main album. While it was reasonable as an opening track, it isn’t the best source material that Depeche Mode have ever provided, but this turns out to be a spacey house mix, with huge amounts of reverb and some more dub influence on the vocals, but it bounces along pleasantly for eight minutes or so.

But while some of their remixes may be particularly challenging, others do hit their mark, and you can trust The Orb‘s Thomas Fehlmann to be the first to do that here, with his excellent Flowing Ambient Mix of Little Soul. It retains large chunks of the original, but adds a huge throbbing synth line that just chugs along gently for nine and a half minutes. It’s pure brilliance, of a sort that only seems to happen once in a while with Depeche Mode‘s remixes.

The remaining remixes are good, but don’t really break new ground. SixToes‘ somewhat anarchic string version of Jezebel is enjoyable, and it’s definitely an odd definition of the “remix”, as it’s difficult to figure out exactly who would play this and where, but it’s also very pleasant. Electronic Periodic‘s Dark Drone Mix of Perfect is an odd combination of electro and house, but works well too.

Finally, Caspa turns up to rework lead single Wrong. This is a pretty good glitchy version, although probably not quite up to the standard of some of the versions on the single, such as Trentemøller‘s take. But it closes out a decent collection in appropriate fashion – there’s not much special here, but there’s nothing really bad either.

All in all, the bonus tracks and remixes from Sounds of the Universe are pretty good. There were some better remixes spread across the singles, but this isn’t a bad collection. Both the bonus tracks and the remixes have plenty of sounds from Depeche Mode‘s universe (excuse the pun) to offer, and so it’s definitely worth hearing. Above all, this is where you can find Oh Well.

You can find all of these tracks on Sounds of the Universe (Deluxe), which is still available from major retailers, including the original album and also the demos, which we reviewed previously here.

Erasure – Rock Me Gently

As far as I’m concerned, there’s little argument about which Erasure album is best – definitely one of the main candidates would be 1995’s enormous eponymous Erasure, which we listened to previously a while back.

After two fairly minor hit singles, and a relatively unsuccessful album (it only peaked at number 14, whereas the previous five had all hit the top spot, although releasing a studio album in November in those days generally wasn’t great for chart positions), the decision was made not to release any more singles in the UK, but the Czech Republic and Germany got an extra one, the brilliant Rock Me Gently.

It’s one of the first intentionally non-charting singles I know of, as the Czech version was widely available on import in the UK, and it might be my favourite single ever. First, you get the single version, a subtle but beefed up reworking of the original, cut down from ten to four minutes without losing too much of the atmosphere of the album version.

It’s a curious choice of single, and it was never going to be a huge hit anyway, so why should it have conventional remixes? First up is A Combination of Special Events, which takes the soft organ sounds which we would later learn belong to the original demo version, and spreads them out over ten minutes, mixing in some more exploratory elements for the long middle section with Diamanda Galás.

Next comes a remix from Phil Kelsey, a regular guest on Erasure‘s 12″ singles, which takes the track into darker, almost deep house territory. There isn’t a lot of vocal here, but it still doesn’t feel too removed from the original, particularly the long middle section.

Possibly the best Erasure remix ever follows, the Bamboo version, reworked into a curious drum and bass-inspired piece by George Holt. By the standards of this era, it’s short, clocking in at just seven and a half minutes, but it’s quite unique and extremely good.

Having lost a good chunk of the original version on the cutting room floor when the single version was put together, it’s nice to see it recovered for the Extended version, which pretty much just takes the album version and adds the drums from the single. Leaving it every bit as good as the original, just a bit more bangy.

The near-instrumental b-side Chertsey Endlos brings the Czech CD to a close. I remember being a bit perplexed by it at the time, but actually it wraps this single up rather nicely. It may not be quite as essential as its predecessors, but neither does it diminish their power.

For the particularly adventurous, the German CD adds two more tracks. Having worked again through the single version and the b-side, you also get a live acoustic take of album track Sono Luminus, a pleasant interpretation of the song which is neither essential listening nor entirely forgettable. Then finally, the Out of the Moon remix of the title track by George Holt and Thomas Fehlmann (the latter occasionally of The Orb). This is a pleasant dub version built generally around the “mood” of the original song and with some of the elements of the Bamboo mix we heard earlier.

But while the German CD may not be entirely essential, the Czech one definitely is – as a companion to the original album it’s inescapably brilliant, and highly recommended.

Neither of the Rock Me Gently singles are still in print, and they never seem to have quite made it to the download universe either. But I’d heartily recommend tracking one or the other down. Seek and ye shall find.

Essential Albums – Erasure

Long before this blog ever existed, some time around late 2000 or early 2001, I started compiling a list of essential albums. There were just six entries, and this was the fourth.

Erasure – Erasure (1995)

  • Chart Position: 14
  • HitsStay with Me (15), Fingers and Thumbs (Cold Summer’s Day) (20)
  • Highlights: Rescue MeSono Luminus

Although still one of their least successful albums to date, Erasure‘s eponymous album is probably their finest work. Collaborations come from renowned electronic pioneers François Kevorkian and Thomas Fehlmann, and make this album quite unlike anything else Erasure have ever released.

No longer one of their least successful, given the way their career tanked over the next decade or so, but still among their finest hours. You can read a more recent review here and the Beginner’s guide to Erasure here.

 

Depeche Mode – Heaven

With something of a surprise, Depeche Mode‘s 2013 comeback single was Heaven. Where were the dark and grizzly electronics? Or the guitars? There was none of that here. But if you were able to remain open minded, Heaven was really something of a return to form.

The main track, with its gospel vocals and driving piano part, is really rather brilliant – and disappointing though much of the accompanying album Delta Machine may have been, the single is definitely among the best tracks on there. It’s quite unlike what we’re used to from Depeche Mode, but that’s certainly not a bad thing.

The b-side All That’s Mine also appears on the deluxe version of the album, and is a Dave Gahan penned track. I’m not going to get into who is the better writer between him and Martin L. Gore, but this particular example certainly isn’t their finest hour. The chorus has a nice hook to it, again with a bit of a gospel feel, but the verses just feel like standard b-side fodder. Or would do, if Depeche Mode were in the habit of regularly doing b-sides.

The remix EP features five tracks – once again, the single version, followed by a great version by Owlie, where they have basically stripped out everything except the vocals and replaced it with chilled out but contemporary synths. If I didn’t know how much saying it would upset every DM fan on the planet, I’d almost be tempted to suggest it’s better than the original.

Thomas Fehlmann‘s Steps to Heaven remix is a little more trippy and a lot more spacious, but it somehow lacks the hooks of the earlier remix. It’s still very enjoyable, although it’s difficult to see how something at this low a tempo would really set the clubs alight.

Neither would Blawan‘s remix. Depeche Mode have a long tradition of commissioning slightly off-kilter remixes, and this is one of them. It’s good, don’t get me wrong – there’s something really rather fun about its grimy synth sounds and bizarre rhythm. But it’s difficult to see who would ever play it – the popular view is surely that remixes are for playing in clubs, but I really can’t see this one ever being played anywhere. Mind you, Heaven wasn’t exactly the biggest chart hit on the planet.

The final version comes from Matthew Dear and Audion, and is the least exciting of the lot. It’s almost difficult to know why it needed so many people to do it, given that for the most part it’s basically just the vocal and a drum pattern. After a while some nice chirpy electronics turn up, but there still isn’t a huge amount to it.

So Heaven was an odd choice for comeback single, although Depeche Mode have always made commercially questionable decisions in favour of doing what’s right artistically. But it’s a good song, and a couple of the remixes turned out nicely too. And it’s always good to have Depeche Mode back.

You can find both Heaven packages at all standard retailers – the single is here at Amazon, and the remix EP is here. If you were unlucky enough to miss the Beginner’s guide to Depeche Mode, don’t forget to check it out here.