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.