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, November 10: Never Never by the Assembly

AssemblyNeverToday’s song is the product of an all-star project that barely happened. When Yazoo disintegrated after the release of their brilliant second album, keyboardist Vince Clarke and producer Eric Radcliffe decided to pursue an ambitious musical adventure. They began writing songs together, anchored by Clarke’s distinctive keyboard work and Radcliffe’s crisp production sense. They intended to bring in a series of vocalists — one for each song on the putative album — hence “the Assembly”.

For their first track, they brought in Northern Irish vocalist Feargal Sharkey, late of the garage punk band the Undertones. Best known for his quavering growl, Sharkey turned in a charming, emotive vocal on this bittersweet ballad. A song of dashed hopes, Never Never is a lovely moment of synth pop.

Sadly, the title was prophetic, since the single turned out to be the only thing the Assembly ever released. Clarke went on to his biggest success with Erasure, and Sharkey mounted a solo career that showed off the vocal sophistication he began exploring with the Assembly.

Enjoy this quietly sad tune 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, March 19: Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode

DMJustCantToday’s song is Just Can’t Get Enough by Depeche Mode, their final single with founding member Vince Clarke. It appears on his only album with the band, their debut Speak & Spell. A stunning example of synth-pop at its finest, it’s a danceable confection with an irresistible hook. “Joyous” is rarely a word associated with Depeche Mode or with any of Clarke’s later projects (most notably Yazoo and Erasure), but it’s the best one-word summary of this track. Displaying an uncanny sense of pop construction, Clarke built a just-repetitive-enough line into a perfect synth rhythm, resulting in one of the band’s best-known songs more than 30 years after it was initially recorded.

Enjoy this synth-pop masterpiece today.

Song of the Day, May 28: Sweet Thing by Yazoo

yaz-you_and_me_bothToday’s song is Sweet Thing by Yazoo. Over the course of just two albums, the duo helped reinvent what was possible with synth-based music. Their joint musical sensibilities, Vince Clarke’s technical wizardry, and Alison Moyet’s deeply soulful voice merged into something uniquely greater than the individual components. They made dance music with heart and technopop with soul — nowhere is that more evident than on Sweet Thing.

Moyet belts out the main parts of the song in her best gospel soul style, telling an unkind lover to hit the road. She laments his bad ways and forecasts a better life without him. At the same time, she feels the strong attraction that has kept them together, weaving an undercurrent of longing anchored by the repeated, breathy recitation of “submission.” It’s a lovely tension, heightened by Clarke’s masterful playing. Occasional breaks with a dark, chanted voice find Moyet clearly arguing with herself. While the urge to cast out the offender is likely to win, its clear that something vital will be lost in the process.

How could you be so unkind
When you were lying to me all the time
You don’t need me now your life is fine
It’s your day now, but it’s gonna be mine
Oh and what a sweet day

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Billboard #1s for the Week Ending September 11, 1982

This week’s Time Capsule!

Chart

Song

Act

Weeks

Hot 100 Hard To Say I’m Sorry Chicago 1
R & B Jump to It Aretha Franklin

2

Country She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft) Jerry Reed

1

Adult Contemporary Blue Eyes Elton John

1

Rock Everybody Wants You Billy Squier

3

Album American Fool John Cougar

1

This week sees a very successful dance hit end its first run at #1. Keyboard whiz Vince Clarke — late of Depeche Mode — and soulful singer Alison Moyet formed Yazoo (known as Yaz in the U.S.) Their first single stateside was Situation, a Hot 100 disappointment at #73. It topped the Dance charts for four weeks, however, and gained some further crossover appeal hitting #31 on the R&B chart. Featuring some of Clarke’s most innovative keyboard work to that point and Moyet’s eerie laughter and driving vocal, it has remained an airplay staple; it has also been sampled many times, most notably in the monster hit Macarena. There were numerous remixes of the song as well, not unusual for dance hits. Besides the club mixes included in various 1982 releases, there were two more released mixes. Situation ’91 made a modest #46 showing on the Dance chart, but Situation ’99 made it back to #1 where it stayed for three weeks.

Song of the Day, July 3: Mr. Blue by Yaz

Today’s song is Mr. Blue by Yaz. Taken from their second (and final) album, You and Me Both, it is a great example of how the duo’s sound truly worked. The masterful electronic touches of Vince Clarke and the deep, soulful voice of Alison Moyet should have been at odds with each other. Somehow they found exactly the right balance and the music was flawless.

This song is a wonderful series of sad vignettes. They range from the political to the personal to the abstract and yet all resonate deeply. Over a fairly simple arrangement of Clarke’s synths, Moyet sings in an unusually restrained but deeply moving voice.

Winter sounds the crying
Like an old man slowly dying
And the only sound, the wind that fills the trees
Even colder comes the moon
And though it never seems too soon
A sudden stillness as the rainfall starts to freeze

I’m Mr. Blue
I’m here to stay with you
And no matter what you do
When you’re lonely, I’ll be lonely too

Today is Vince Clarke’s 52nd birthday. Enjoy one of his finest compositions and wish him many happy returns.

Song of the Day, March 4: A Little Respect by Erasure

Today’s song is A Little Respect by Erasure. When it came to partnerships, the fourth time was the charm for Vince Clarke. He was the principle songwriter for the embryonic Depeche Mode on their debut album, Speak and Spell. He left immediately after and formed the wonderful synthpop duo Yazoo (Yaz in the U.S.) with singer Alison Moyet. They recorded two brilliant albums and then split. He charted a lone single as the Assembly (with vocals by Feargal Sharkey, late of the Undertones), the charming Never Never. Frustrated, he placed an ad for a musical partner and found Andy Bell. Bell’s vocal power was a great fit for Clarke’s musical vision and the duo began a long-lasting and successful recording partnership with the 1986 album Wonderland. They’ve charted 35 singles in the U.K., 17 of which have been Top 10. Their success on the U.S. pop charts has been less dramatic, but they have a strong international following. They’ve also charted 21 U.S. top 40 Dance singles including the #1 Victim of Love; they rank in the top 20 all time artists on that chart.

A Little Respect is very much my favorite Erasure song. It’s a great dance song with a wonderful message of determination. I wasn’t familiar with it when it was a hit but encountered it as the soundtrack to a delightful montage in the film D.E.B.S. After reaching #4 on the British charts, the song peaked at #14 on this date in 1989 on the U.S. Hot 100. Enjoy this signature song by a great dance duo today.

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