Song of the Day, July 26: Softly Over by Yazoo

YazSoftlyBy the time they recorded their second album as Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S.), tensions between Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke were such that they rarely appeared in the studio at the same time. Despite those circumstances, they made one of the best synth-pop albums ever recorded; perhaps because of those circumstances, the potentially chilly songs resonate with real emotion.

One of the finest examples is Softly Over. Clarke provides a haunting, sometimes creepy backdrop, with spare synth chords and strange sound effects. He builds a sense of isolation and despair, over which Moyet provides a flawless vocal. Her rich voice — always the perfect foil for the keyboards — is hushed. The lyrics are a straightforward recital of loss, opening with “It’s over” and getting darker from there. All the elements coalesce into a marvelous, powerful whole, a standout on a nearly perfect disc.

Enjoy this haunting song today.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, February 22: It Won’t Be Long by Alison Moyet

MoyetIWBLToday’s song is It Won’t Be Long by Alison Moyet. After leaving Yazoo, the singer had a few very successful years on the British charts, but began to chafe under label pressure to keep churning out similar-sounding hits. She took four years to craft her third album, Hoodoo, and the result was powerful, but too somber for the Sony. Most of the tracks were written with Pete Glenister, who also worked with Kirsty MacColl. The standout track was the lead single, It Won’t Be Long. It’s a powerful song of invisible forces and emotional turmoil. Moyet’s voice is finer than ever, and the musical setting is darkly danceable.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, August 17: Love Reign Supreme by Alison Moyet

MoyetMinutesSupremeToday’s song is Alison Moyet’s Love Reign Supreme. In nearly forty years, the singer has seen her career nearly derailed many times by label shenanigans and personal crises. In 2013, she found solid footing again. After a solid but sporadic string of albums she had found a strong musical partner in producer Gus Sigsworth. For The Minutes, they returned to her synth-pop roots, blending her bluesy vocals with smart dance grooves.

Confident and happy, Moyet chose the name of the album carefully:

Basically, we all feel slightly cheated when our life does not end up being this stream of joy and one thing that you do understand when you come middle aged is that it was never about that, it was always a lie, that it was always about fantastic minutes that are suspended in years, and that’s what this is about.

That feeling is clearly carried in the album’s finest song, Love Reign Supreme. It’s a joyous blast of synth dance music, infectious and delightful. Moyet wrote the song with Sigsworth and Cass Lowe; her lyrics clearly reflect the underlying theme of the disc, celebrating the moments that matter and noting the distractions that we need to set aside. She turns in one of her finest vocals in years, clearly enjoying herself and making the most of every aspect of the song.

Enjoy this delightful track today.

Song of the Day, June 1: Invisible by Alison Moyet

alison-moyet-invisible-1984Today’s song is Alison Moyet’s biggest US hit. After splitting with Yazoo partner Vince Clarke, the singer embarked on a solo career that made her a British superstar. Her debut album was called ‘Alf’ after her childhood nickname and featured a great set of tracks. She continued to write many of her own songs as well as selecting good matches from other writers. Invisible was written by legendary songwriter Lamont Dozier, co-writer of dozens of Motown hits. His style is a perfect fit for Moyet’s rich. bluesy voice.

The tale of a woman so scorned by her lover that she might as well not exist, Invisible is a pop classic, evoking 60s soul-pop crossover hits. With its chiming chords and danceable beat, it’s an infectious groove. Moyet just barely restrains her vocal power, making the most of the lyrics and creating one of the finest moments in her long career.

Thirty years ago today Invisible peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100, her only Top 40 single in the States despite her huge success in Britain. Enjoy this great pop gem today.

Song of the Day, September 4: Only You by Yaz

YazooOnlyYouToday’s song is Only You by Yaz. Vince Clarke wrote the sweet ballad while still a member of Depeche Mode but never recorded it with that band. When he hooked up with singer Alison Moyet to form Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S.), it was a perfect fit for her bluesy voice and became part of their debut album, Upstairs At Eric’s.

It’s a classic synth-pop tune, with Clarke’s electronic wizardry creating a wistfully moving framework for Moyet’s vocals. Her R&B inspired delivery adds a warmth and richness that makes the package work nicely. It became one of the duo’s biggest hits and has been covered by a dizzying array of artists from the a cappella Christmas #1 version by the Flying Pickets to the internationally successful Spanish version by Enrique Iglesias.

Nothing beats the original, however. Enjoy this timeless pop classic today.

Album of the Week, June 1: You and Me Both by Yaz

yaz-you_and_me_bothRBHSJDIDBadgeAfter he left Depeche Mode — dissatisfied with the PR aspect of being in a successful band — Vince Clarke cast about for another musical partner who shared his vision for powerful, emotive electronic pop. Alison Moyet, an apprentice piano tuner and cosmetics salesperson who worked with a number of post-punk bands, fit the bill nicely. Her rich, bluesy voice married brilliantly with Clarke’s expressive, experimental synth work — the mixture of organic and electronic was truly more than the sum of the two splendid parts. The pair named themselves Yazoo — shortened to Yaz in North America to avoid legal issues with an American label and band. Their debut, Upstairs At Eric’s is one of the finest moments of synth pop ever recorded. Smart, experimental, musically rich, and stylistically diverse, it won awards and big chart success in the UK. Unfortunately, this meant that Clarke was faced with the demon of success again. Reluctantly agreeing not to leave a second act after just one album, he settled in with Moyet to write and record You and Me Both. As they began work on the second album, his refusal to do PR and fondness for very precisely scheduled studio work clashed with her freer spirit. As a result, much of the next album was recorded separately. The startling cover image of two dogs fighting was chosen by Moyet in a dark mood, reflecting her feelings about the recording. The duo had ceased to exist by the time the first single was released.

Title You and Me Both
Act Yaz
Label Sire / mute Release Date July 4, 1983
Producer E.C. Radcliffe, Vince Clarke & Alison Moyet
U.S. Chart  69 U.K. Chart  1
Tracks
  1. Nobody’s Diary
  2. Softly Over
  3. Sweet Thing
  4. Mr. Blue
  5. Good Times
  6. Walk Away From Love
  7. Ode to Boy
  8. Unmarked
  9. Anyone
  10. State Farm OR Happy People
  11. And On

Despite — or perhaps fueled by — the tension, You and Me Both managed to surpass its predecessor. While not as startling — being a second album — it is much more consistent. The songs are also more richly textured, with Clarke’s growing command of keyboards allowing him to summon up an amazing array of musical styles and tones. Moyet’s voice is in excellent form with the experience of the first album helping her polish and enrich her skills.

Things start off with the duo’s finest moment, Nobody’s Diary. A wonderful don’t-mistreat-me song, it’s propelled by a soulfully resigned vocal married to a wistful but stately keyboard figure. Just angry enough, it’s an amazing display of how much emotion could be packed into a synth-driven song. Softly Over mines similar but darker territory, with the romance being truly broken. A haunting melody is underscored by eerie effects as Moyet sings a lonely, aching chorus. Things kick into high gear with the lusty Sweet Thing. A Motownish number with a driving beat and great synth-horn line, it’s a perfect I-want-you (or maybe not) song and one of Moyet’s best high-energy vocals. Mr. Blue is a quiet, reassuring song, another standout on this great disc. A near lullaby of hope in dark times, it’s subtle and beautiful. The near church organ sound is perfect as well. Good Times is a great dance party anthem, wrapping up side one in dramatic form.

Walk Away From Love is another slice of 60s pop turned on its head. The almost twee keyboard figure introduces a great drum line, opening things up for Moyet to form her own girl group. Like the opener of side one, it has a note of anger, but where Nobody’s Diary was resigned, this one is determined — perhaps this romance can be saved if the right energy is found. Ode to Boy is an odd but effective piece told in fragments. Moyet’s glimpses of the object of her obsession are compelling, with Clarke’s funky riffing moving things along like the slow drive she’s describing. Unmarked is a rare political song, an anti-war lyric chanted over a martial beat. It’s nicely done, remaining just vague enough to become timeless. Anyone is Moyet’s torchiest moment, a wonderful, mysterious song with a slow burn accompaniment.

Track 10 is another sign of the challenges the disc faced. Clarke wrote Happy People for the album. Moyet flatly refused to sing it noting later, “there are just some places you can’t go.” As a result, it’s a rare Vince Clarke lead vocal. For the American market, Sire wisely left off the track, which is frankly a dud. In its place is the quirky, energetic State Farm, the B-side of the Nobody’s Diary single. It’s a funky, greasy groove with a rap-scat vocal and great dance effects. It may be odd, but it really works.

The album wraps up with Moyet’s quiet meditation on death, And On. A lovely tribute to those who die young, it’s quietly moving and a perfect closer for the album, somber and optimistic at once. Sadly it also signalled the death of Yaz, leaving two brilliant albums that stand the test of time.

FURTHER LISTENING: Clarke tried another band of sorts, teaming up with Yaz producer Eric Radcliffe to form the Assembly. Their one single Never Never features great vocals from Feargal Sharkey and is worth tracking down. He finally found the perfect partner in Andy Bell, a man with a voice eerily like Moyet’s (but pitched an octave higher). As Erasure, Clarke and Bell have had a long successful career. Their albums are all decent, but they are fundamentally a singles band. Pop! The First 20 Hits is the essential collection; more completionist listeners can grab Total Pop! with 20 further hits.

Alison Moyet went solo, launching a very successful career that found her voted best female vocalist in Britain two years in a row. Alf, titled after her childhood nickname, is a solid debut. Her best album is Essex, her fourth. A brilliant mix of covers and originals, it shows off her voice in a good blend of acoustic and plugged-in settings. It also features a guitar-based version of Ode to Boy which works at least as well as the original. She’s had a number of hits and the mid-career collection Singles is a great overview. Label troubles and waning interest in performing led to only three releases between 1994 and 2012. They’re all decent but none are essential. Her powerful 2013 return, The Minutes, is a great disc, however and signals a newly energized phase in her career.

Song of the Day, February 21: Getting Into Something by Alison Moyet

MoyetGettingToday’s song is Getting Into Something by Alison Moyet. It appears on her fourth, and finest, solo disc, 1994’s Essex. Moyet co-wrote the track with frequent collaborator Pete Glenister. It’s a surging song of romantic complications. The singer celebrates the passion of her relationship while acknowledging that things are far from easy. There’s a chance that the couple may even crash and burn, but she wants to make the most of their time together, hopeful fusing into something lasting.

Moyet’s powerful vocals are perfectly suited for the sultry, whisper-to-a-scream approach. She revels in the passion and aches through the hardships with equal vigor. It’s a highlight in a great singing career.

I’m getting into something
You got me into something good
Like I knew you would
I’m moving into something
You move me into something easy
And it pleases me

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, November 12: Jules Shear’s Whispering Your Name

ShearWhisperMoyetWhisperingToday’s song is Whispering Your Name. After nearly a decade in the music business and work with two bands, Jules Shear released his first solo album, Watch Dog, in 1983. With a new musical and lyrical maturity, it paved the way for his success as a songwriter and included two songs that were later hits for others — All Through the Night [#5 for Cyndi Lauper in 1985] and this song.

Whispering Your Name is a powerful blend of romantic betrayal and hope. It’s narrated by the person that a woman seeks out for solace when her relationship goes south. That person has complicated feelings for the refugee and for the abandoned lover. The layered lyrics and passionate musical backdrop create a compelling story that features one of Shear’s strongest vocals.

When she said that you were through
I thought that there was
nothing that I could do
Just because she ran right here
Doesn’t mean I interfered
Now I’m wondering
if we can feel the same

Cause she keeps whispering your name
She keeps on whispering your name
Like she’s just waiting

While Shear’s single was unsuccessful, it did help raise his profile as a songwriter. A decade later, British songstress Alison Moyet included a stunning cover on her fourth (and finest) solo album, Essex. Her original take was a powerful acoustic version, matching the haunting energy of Shear’s reading with an amazing vocal like only Moyet can deliver. Sadly, her label was focused on commercial viability and created a slick electronic remix — which did hit the UK Top 20. To tweak the label, Moyet included her longtime friend, comedian Dawn French, in the video for a wonderfully comic romp.

Both versions are powerful in their own right. Enjoy Jules Shear’s emotional original and Alison Moyet’s compelling cover today.

Song of the Day, September 18: That Ole Devil Called Love by Alison Moyet

MoyetDevilToday’s song is That Ole Devil Called Love by Alison Moyet. It was written in 1944 by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts. Fisher was also a big band singer who was working with Roberts as staff writers for Decca. The song was chosen for Billie Holiday, who cut it as the B-side of her seminal hit Lover Man. It’s a great song about the power of love to beguile even those who have suffered mightily in its throes.

Alison Moyet was red-hot in 1985, enjoying massive British success with her first solo album, Alf. She has always enjoyed a wide range of music, and decided to record the song as a single between albums. Her powerful voice is perfectly suited to the wonderful tune, and she turns in a delightfully nuanced performance that she took to #2 on the British charts.

Might as well give up that fight again
I know darn well he’ll convince me that he’s right again
When he sings that sorry song
I’ve just gotta tag along
With that ole devil called love

Enjoy this great interpretation of a classic song today.

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