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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Yello – Touch Yello

Yello‘s unusual sound was a mainstay of European electronic pop for several decades, but in a way, it had to stop at some point. They had had their low points, but by the time Touch Yello appeared in 2009 – after a six-year break – they were pretty much guaranteed the top spot in their native Switzerland.

Touch Yello opens with The Expert, a traditional Yello piece in many pieces, full of bass, low pads, and those low, low vocals. It’s a good opening track, but ultimately there’s little new here. You Better Hide is more like it in that regard. Roping in Heidi Happy on vocals, this was the first time they had used another vocalist to quite this extent on an album. The resultant sound is lounge through and through.

Some tracks manage to still be classic Yello but with new elements, and Out of Dawn is one of these, but also adds a brilliantly catchy chorus. In a way, this could have appeared on any of their albums – of which, for those counting, Touch Yello is their twelfth of thirteen to date. For an act that a lot of people have barely heard of, that’s quite an impressive back catalogue.

As a nod to this, Bostich (Reflected) takes them back to one of their earliest singles, originally released on Solid Pleasure (1979), and a minor hit in 1981. Including something with that heritage here is bold, to say the least, but it actually does fit well.

But this is, for the most part, lounge music, and so roping in jazz musician Till Brönner, on Flügelhorn of all things, is not quite as crazy as it might sound. It’s not entirely clear where this track is supposed to be going, but it’s gloriously atmospheric.

That is, of course, true for most of the songs on here – Tangier Blue is gloriously evocative of warm, North African nights. Part Love may not be the track that I would have chosen for lead single – it’s hardly the catchiest or most unusual track on here – but it’s pretty good.

Ultimately, and perhaps surprisingly, for a once somewhat novelty act like Yello, this is very much an album, rather than a collection of songs. The soft, slightly trippy lounge music bobs along sweetly via tracks such as Friday Smile, and unlike some of their sillier outings, you’ll find yourself feeling happy and relaxed. I hesitate to use “future jazz” as a genre, but it does seem fitting here.

Having established the guests already, it’s time for Heidi Happy to return, with her slightly hoarse, perfectly chosen voice – Kiss in Blue is a great duet, and a beautiful love song, delivered perfectly. It feels like the soundtrack to a million romantic comedies, albeit with slightly more manic drum fingerwork than normal.

Then it’s time for Till Brönner‘s second outing on Vertical Vision. His tracks on here are definitely jazzier, and while I’m not normally convinced that’s a good thing, it does work well here. The vocals return for Trackless Deep, though, which is a sweetly catchy piece. For those who aren’t quite as keen on jazz, the preceding track can just be thought of as a brief deviation before another full vocal track.

Heidi Happy returns, for the last time now, on Stay, another lush, lovely piece. It’s soft and unassuming, but hides a sweet message. Then Till Brönner is back for Electric Frame, probably the closest this album gets to freestyle jazz, but if that isn’t your thing (it isn’t really mine, if I’m honest) then at least it doesn’t last too long.

Finally, for Takla Maklan, Dorothee Oberlinger appears as a guest, turning up a little late to the party. It’s a suitably atmospheric closing piece, with a curiously North African feel, but an appropriately sweet way to finish off a brilliantly gentle album. It might have taken Yello a few years to reach this pinnacle, and six years since its predecessor, but Touch Yello is honestly pretty much as good as they get.

Seemingly the deluxe edition of Touch Yello is still available, and it’s worth it for no fewer than six bonus tracks and an entire “live” studio album which is worth having too.

Yello – You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess

You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess was Yello‘s third album, released this week in 1983, but it was also the release that saw them start to break the charts for the first time in the UK, USA, and their native Switzerland.

The primary single I Love You was actually the second release from this album, released shortly after the album came out in May 1983. Their first UK hit single (almost – it just missed out on a top 40 placing), it’s a fun, daft track, which fades out much too quickly on the album.

Next is the other big hit, Lost Again, which is truly brilliant. Possibly for the first time in Yello‘s career, they seem to have put most of the silliness to one side and concentrated on just making a great song, and it comes across amazingly – it’s big, atmospheric, and filmic, and really deserves to be known by everyone.

In a way that’s really all they needed to do with this album, and they seem to have been very aware of this – No More Words is fine, but it’s a bit of a daft semi-instrumental piece with vocal samples dotted throughout. Then nothing else on Side A even breaks the three-minute mark – Crash DanceGreat Mission, and the title track all follow, each a bit silly in its own way. You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess was also the first single, released the preceding year and hinting at their future success. It’s fun, and you might enjoy the samples and funny voices, but honestly there’s really nothing particularly special here.

Side B brings us the swing delights of Swing and then dull but pleasant Heavy WhispersSmile on You, and Pumping Velvet. You’ll probably find your mind drifting a bit somewhere during these tracks. The first two tracks on Side A were great, but nothing else here is really too outstanding. Closing track Salut Mayoumba is pleasant, as many of the earlier tracks were too, but is it really the sort of thing you want to close your album with?

So there isn’t really a lot we can say here. You Gotta Say Yes to Another Excess was Yello‘s breakthrough album, but apart from some great singles, it’s generally nothing special. This is really where their history began, and it showed promise that subsequent albums would fulfill, but there’s really not a lot on here to write home about.

As with all of their early material, the essential release is the 2005 reissue with bonus tracks, which is still available.

X-Press 2 – Muzikizum

I don’t really know a huge amount about X-Press 2, apart from vaguely being aware of their presence in the mid-1990s, and of course the smash hit Lazy, taken from their palindromic album Muzikizum, which first appeared fifteen years ago this week.

Getting the title track out of the way first, the opener is a beatsie piece with some very familiar samples and a whole lot of house. If house isn’t your thing, you might well be struggling already, but it’s a varied enough piece, and you would at least find it mercifully short, at a mere six minutes.

Supasong is shorter, more repetitive, and definitely lacking somewhat in ideas. Somehow it doesn’t quite work: it isn’t deep enough to be deep house; it isn’t interesting enough to be anything really. Pleasant, but little more than that.

So the massive hit Lazy can’t really come too soon, although in its album form, rather than extending the song that you probably bought this for in the first place, X-Press 2 have instead just added a couple of minutes of house beats and sound effects to the front. When it does finally get going, it shouldn’t take you long to remember why you liked this so much. The piano introduction may sound like something from a decade or so earlier; the lyrics might be completely daft; but the melody is uplifting, David Byrne‘s delivery is great, and you’ll very probably identify with the theme as a whole.

What it isn’t, is particularly representative of the rest of the album, as Angel demonstrates. This is the closest we’ve come yet to deep house on this album, and for what it is, it’s pretty competent. The best just goes straight on and on, apparently. And it does – Palenque and Smoke Machine continue on a similar theme – catchy and repetitive, and pleasant enough to enjoy. But maybe not quite as memorable as Lazy.

Actually, pretty much everything on this album was released as a 12″ single at some stage, and I Want You Back was the follow-up to Lazy, and it barely managed that. Which is a great shame – Dieter Meier from Yello turns up to deliver a typically ridiculous vocal, and it turns out to be a good mix, with his low vocals and some deep house beats and effects.

Call That Love is next, and for the first time brings us some chirpy melodic elements from the start. Steve Edwards injects a soulful vocal, and after a bit the production goes completely wild – for the first time in about five tracks, we’re hearing melodic sounds; things other than drums and short samples. I’m not entirely sure that any of the words really make sense, but it’s pretty good if you can put that out of your mind.

AC/DC was another single, and another of the less interesting tracks on here, at least if you aren’t in a grimey sweaty club with lots of flashing lights going on. There are some nice disco elements at times, and there’s a lot to enjoy, but you do find yourself wishing there was something a little more substantial to it.

The Ending track is called the ending, and keeps up the slight disco theme, with a bit of dub as well as the deep house beats and structures. It’s a compelling mix, and yes, it may not be the best track ever written, but it works well, and it does exactly what it intends to.

Which is pretty much true of Muzikizum in general, actually. X-Press 2 needed an album to go with Lazy, and they pulled something together that did what they wanted it to. Not a lot more than that, admittedly, and that’s a shame, but if you can accept it for what it is, this is a good album.

The original album seems to be less available than it once was, but you can still find copies floating around.

Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise

Barely six months after the release of Jean-Michel Jarre‘s first Electronica album, he was already back with the second volume. This time, of course, we start with certain expectations after the first, and it’s not a disappointment.

The second volume begins with the gloriously atmospheric The Heart of Noise (Part 1), a duet with the French electronic musician Rone, who I hadn’t heard of before, but who seems to have brought a lot of additional atmosphere to this piece. It steps naturally into Part 2, which curiously for a collaboration album features Jarre collaborating with himself.

You must have realised by now that I’m a pretty big fan of Pet Shop Boys, so it should come as little surprise that I was excited about Brick England, but it does seem a typical act of irony for the duo that what’s clearly their best song in a number of years didn’t actually make it onto their latest album, released just weeks before this one. But Brick England is just so good. If there were any justice, this would have been number one for weeks. It wasn’t even a single – actually, Jarre seems to have lost interest in this album as soon as it was released and gone onto recording Oxygène 3 instead.

Julia Holter turns up next for the sparkling These Creatures, and then the one track that I don’t understand, As One with Primal Scream. It seems clear that they didn’t bother turning up for this, so Jarre has collaborated with them in much the same way as rappers collaborate with bald annoying drummers – by taking their song and recording another one over the top. The results aren’t bad, but surely Jarre could have done better?

Some of the legends here are every bit as legendary as Jarre himself, and Gary Numan is surely one of the closest, and although I haven’t really felt he’s lived up to his status in the last couple of decades, it’s hard not to have a degree of respect for him. Here for You is good though – possibly even one of the better tracks on here.

Without the list of collaborators, it’s often hard to know exactly what’s going on, so the gentle Electrees (with Hans Zimmer) fades into the more violent Exit, largely a solo Jarre work until Edward Snowden suddenly appears out of nowhere to talk about privacy for some reason.

Next it’s the turn of Canadian singer Peaches, who confused me briefly when I wondered why I’d only vaguely heard of her, until I realised she’s basically never had a hit in the UK. What You Want is pretty good though, although perhaps not quite as good as Gisele, with the flamboyant French singer Sébastien Tellier.

Switch on Leon sees Jarre appropriately working with The Orb to express their deep love of synthesizers and electronic music, but ultimately here is little more than an interlude which continues with the pleasant and bumpy Circus, with Siriusmo.

The brilliant Yello turn up for Why This, Why That and Why, a strangely compelling track which, like Brick England, blows their own 2016 album Toy out of the water. It’s an odd one, but it’s definitely one of the best tracks on here.

Prolific experimental musician Jeff Mills is next, with The Architect, a pleasant instrumental before the brilliant Swipe to the Right, with Cyndi Lauper, definitely one of the best pop tracks that Jarre has ever been involved with. Then another French legend Christophe appears to deliver Walking the Mile, a pleasant pop song.

Right at the end are a couple of surprises – Jarre collaborates with himself again and delivers his own vocal on another great pop song, Falling Down, and then it closes with the track that started the whole project, The Heart of Noise (The Origin).

Ultimately both halves of the Electronica project are great albums, but I’d dare to suggest that The Heart of Noise is actually slightly better than The Time Machine. Needless to say, both albums are well worth a listen, and ideally a purchase, and hopefully, one day, even a follow-up.

You can still find volume 2 of Electronica at all major retailers.

Stowaway Awards 2017

Finally! We kick Awards Season off in earnest with the Important Announcement of the winners of the 2017 Stowaways.

Best Track

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre with Pet Shop Boys, for Brick England.

Best Album

These were the nominees:

  • The Avalanches – Wildflower
  • David Bowie – Blackstar
  • Clarke Hartnoll – 2Square
  • C Duncan – The Midnight Sun
  • I Monster – Bright Sparks
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Electronica 2: The Heart of Noise
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène 3
  • Pet Shop Boys – Super
  • Shit Robot – What Follows
  • Yello – Toy

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre, who had a particularly good year and stood a better chance of winning than most, with Oxygène 3.

Best Reissue / Compilation

The nominees:

  • Air – Twentyears
  • Cicero – Future Boy
  • The Human League – Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group
  • New Order – Complete Music
  • Dusty Springfield – Reputation

Winner: The Human League

Best Artist

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre

Best Live Act

Winner: Pet Shop Boys

Best Ambient Track

Nominated were:

  • Air – Adis Abebah
  • Delerium – Ghost Requiem
  • Enigma – Sadeness (Part II)
  • I Monster – Alan R Pearlman and the ARPiological exploration of the cosmos
  • Jean-Michel Jarre – Oxygène (Part 17)

Winner: Delerium, for Ghost Requiem

Best Dance Act / Remixer

Potential winners included:

  • The Avalanches
  • Clarke Hartnoll
  • Stuart Price
  • Röyksopp
  • Shit Robot

Winner: Shit Robot

Best Newcomer

Winner: C Duncan

Innovation Award

Winner: Jean-Michel Jarre

Outstanding Contribution

Could have been any of the following:

  • David Bowie
  • Vince Clarke
  • Delerium
  • Enigma
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark

Winner: Delerium

That’s an unprecedented four out of ten for Jean-Michel Jarre. All being well, we’ll do the BRIT and Grammy Awards over the next couple of weeks.