"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Tuesday 22 April 2014

A Tale Of Two Yellos

Boris Blank and Dieter Meier - the heart of electronic / electronica / pop music creators and production team who call themselves Yello.  Or have done for many decades.  You can enjoy lots of their material here on Spotify.

They're frequently playing on my system, from the earlier stuff like "The Race" on the album "Flag", through complexities such as "Nervous" on "The Eye" to the latest (2009!) sophisticated and equally complex but far more subtle tracks with Heidi Happy and Till Bronner on the "Touch" album, I enjoy their quirkiness, sense of humour and unique blend of electronic music with real tunes rather than just beats.  With "Touch" a 10 year trend became very well resolved - a move to a more sophisticated, jazz inspired kind of direction. Bland even sings in a more traditional sense when dueting with Happy on the "Touch" track "Kiss In Blue".  And pretty much every one of their albums has been a sound quality benchmark of its time.

At the Scalford Hifi Wigwam show this year I showcased the "Touch Yello" virtual concert DVD throughout the day on a modest Rotel / Mission fronted system with a Dell projector and it seems to have gone down reasonably well with a good number of visitors.  That's reported here, but is an aside to this review really.  Today I'm going to review Yello's respective solo releases - they've come about 4 or 5 months apart - an interesting departure, but hopefully not the end of future releases for them together as Yello.

You can read about Yello in the usual places, wikipedia for example, where you'll get the history, discography etc.  I don't have their very earliest stuff as I don't like it so much, but have all the major releases from 1987's "One Second" through to the VW Golf promotion of 2012 "The Key To Perfection".  My first real experience of their stuff was when "The Race" was used as a backing track to a 5 minute or so summary video of Patrick Snijers' incredible driving skill as he took his BMW M3 to a stunning victory on his first visit to the Isle of Man in 1988.  Playing on a big screen as the prelude to the rally's awards ceremony, it certainly made an impression when matched to those images.  Still one of the best pieces of driving I've had the pleasure to witness first hand.

Imagine this:


With this as the soundtrack:

So that was worth further investigation. Hence began my interest in Yello and their music that's never really gone away in the intervening 26 years (gulp!).  They're pretty experimental in their approach.  The music tends to have a few constant features - a very clear beat, melodic & very deep bass lines, multiple layers of complexity, mixing electronics & orchestral arrangements and a very quirky sense of humour.  How many bands can include Shirley Bassey and "Tweaky" from the Buck Rogers TV programme as guest vocalists for example?  There's diversity, sophistication and a unique approach across their work, and whilst it doesn't always hit the mark, most of the time it works well, as long as you like that kind of stuff.  Give it a try if you don't know them yet.

Now, after so many years working together, they've released solo projects.  The first to market was Boris Blank in partnership with Malia with "Convergence".  This week the pre-ordered signed copy of Dieter Meier's "Out Of Chaos" landed on my doorstep.  These albums aren't on general release in the UK, but they are available through the likes of Amazon.de using an Amazon.co.uk account id.  "Out of Chaos" can be legally downloaded in full CD quality on junodownload.co.uk  "Convergence" is available as a CD quality download at qobuz, if you're lucky enough to be in the right territory. Unfortunately I've been unable to locate at 24 bit / 96kHz or similar quality versions as yet.

Malia and Boris Blank - Convergence
On Spotify: http://open.spotify.com/album/6EqhJyJT6R5HZTfENZPyqP

If you were hoping that Yello would continue the direction they were taking with 2009's "Touch" album, particularly those tracks with Heidi Happy on vocals, then this would probably have been a great follow up album.

What's there?  All those lush Boris Blank hallmarks are there:  deep, tune-laden bass lines, somewhat mysterious and layered percussion, shadowy underpinnings (you might not spot some of the subtleties until the third or fourth listen), strong structure, changes in direction and masses of layered synthesized orchestral stuff.  Malia's jazz / african vocals are superb throughout, as are the strengths of the song and tune writing.  With only one cover on the album ("Fever") the quality of the songs from this pairing are impressive - varied, fresh, sophisticated and well suited to the blend of electronica with jazz.  Yet again, production values and sound quality are sky high.

What's not there?  The quirky humour is distinctly absent - this is almost Boris Blank saying that this is his "grown up" approach to music.  And that's great.  It would be a mistake for a Yello album to move away from the humour, but here, with Malia, its the right approach.  It doesn't mean that there is no humour in this album, its just much more subtle rather than up front.  I often think that Yello's humour is probably what prevents them from reaching a wider audience - it's likely to drive some listeners to not take them seriously as musicians.  This is a shame, as they are very serious about their humour!  There are no really "edgy" tracks here, some might take it as a bit too smooth.

Celestial Echo: We kick off with some deep, echoing, haunting electronic bass drums and some subtle effects as Malia advises us that she's the mad storyteller.  She seems to be out to save the soul of a lover and to offer comfort.  There's some doubt about how this ends - there's no clue about if the offer is taken up.  Underneath the story the bass drums continue their tune and there are instrumental interludes which are impressively subtle but don't add much to the storyline.  I get the feeling it went well, but I don't really care too much as its not really very involving.

Embrassable Moon: The pace picks up a touch here and Malia's voice is more expressive - there's a raspy edge now, which is more engaging.  This is another positively spun tune on a familiar theme ("I live to breath the air that you breathe") with some lilting percussion under a keyboard and sax led melody.  It drifts along and then fades out without you really noticing.

I Feel It Like You:  Perhaps a touch of Yello quirkiness here?  Its a contrast to the first 2 tracks with a rhythm that bounces along a little playfully and some of that synthesised flicks and tricks in the percussion that will be familiar to fans.  The guitar riff and hand claps /  finger clicks drive the track along well, along with splashes of horn section.  Again this is a positive track, but there's a playful mystical twist to the way its structured and sung - its a love rekindled rather than a given.

Touching Ghosts:  Oooh, now we're getting going.  This tracks opens with a swimming, swooning melodic line and Malia sounding a little melancholy.  The voice and sad lyrics are contrasting with the more playful melody of the instruments.  Pauses in the tune give you time to reflect - there's mystery in here (and a reference to a later track with "I put a spell on you" used as a backing line), deep bass melody is inter-played with brass interjections and the snowflakes keep falling.  This track leaves me wanting to hear a longer version - it could develop into something very delicious indeed.

Claire Cadillac:  I can't quite get my head around what this one's about.  But there's no doubt that Malia's showing off here vocal versatility in this one - one moment its a bit girlish and playful, the next its multi-tracked lushness.  I think it could be about jealously of another woman who "has it all".  There's synthesised dulcimer and other unexpected elements in here.  This track is both playful and sinuous at the same time.  With the prevous track and this one, I'm hooked into this album now.

Raising Venus:  Sadness and ruthlessness are the themes here.  She'll burn you.  But its also very sinister and that comes through in both Malia's vocals, the tension in the music and the interjections from synths and other squarks and squeeks in true Yello style.  But the way Malia sings "Little Red Riding Hood drives through, she does not cry, boo hoo" is like a really unpleasant story teller trying to scare the life out of a bunch of primary school kids.  And me.  This is a slightly disturbing track and rather good for it.

Fever:  I refreshing take on this classic track.  Constructing the backing track very sparsely from drums and a single synth with trademark (but very difficult to describe) noises and punctuation, swinging along at a very gentle pace transposes this track from exciting and celebratory to something a bit more predatorial. 

Smouldering Ashes: Smoldering voice.  Malia talks us through this track, and you could probably say this is the one track that Dieter Meier could deliver equally well.  The percussion bounces along in the background with long trumpet cords tying the drums to the melody.  Very sparse again here.  Its one of those tracks that sounds very simple, but probably took many hours of experimentation to ensure that the right balance of tension and emphasis is delivered.  Its another song that's about something that's not happy.  There's something in there about being together but as part of possession rather than partnership and then there's something about that going wrong too.  These unhappy topics really do work well in this collaboration between Malia and Blank.

Magnetic Lies:  This and the next 2 tracks drive this album towards a real songwriting crescendo.  Deep staccatto bass lines with swooping instrumental fills blend superbly with Malia's seductive sweeping multi-tracked vocals.  Its about cheating in relationships.  There are some elements where it the chord changes are very much carrying an air of that cheating, but enjoying it too.  There's one particular chord change that needs a system to go deep to work fully - on my main system it goes deep enough to mean that the lower notes in the chord change are reproduced and its distinctly melancholy.  On the dining room system that can't get that low the chord change sounds somewhat happier.  Interesting to hear how the system's ability to resolve the recording can change the emotional content.

Tears Run Dry:  Oh, how the sadness continues in Malia's world, but that's good for us because it produces another stonking track.  The timing of the musical phrasing in this track is superb.  A walking bass line dominates, but various muted trumpets (probably not real ones of course!) build the feel, along with the occasional echoing percussion exclamation points.  "Tears run dry, what's left to try?  Tears run dry, you lost all your balls".  Says it all really, except that this is another track that deserves another couple of minutes of development but ends too soon and leaves you wanting for more.

Turner's Ship:  More mystery.  More echoing deep drums, but this time they're slower paced, spaced out and take a long time to fade away.  Then there's the surprise of a very African tribal chant which is positive sounding and tuneful.  Then Malia cuts in, supported by hand claps and percussion that will be familiar to those who know "The Key To Perfection", along with multiple complex arrangements of cow bells, cymbals, bongos and other percussion, to deliver another heart-wrenching set of lyrics.  Not love this time, but it would seem to be the tragedy of hunger and the imbalance of poverty to wealth.  Sobering.  Another really engaging track.

Conclusion:  After the first couple of tracks that are more positive and light in outlook but which are a little bland, this album really gets going.  Once Malia gets into the meat of the serious, melancholic and in some cases downright twisted/tragic topics the musical quality of the album transcends the slick and sophisticated presentation and becomes a more engaging listen.  Not to be missed by any Yello enthusiast, but also deserves to be embraces by a much wider audience as a great mix of electronic with jazz.

Dieter Meier - Out of Chaos

If you're familiar with Meier's contribution to the Yello albums, that gruff, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes playful, sometimes downright weird deep baritone voice will be very familar.  Is it singing? Not really.  Is it rap?  Nope.  I guess it's more of an in-tune talk really.  You'll not mistake it, that much is sure.

What's there?  This is a step back in time for a Yello listener.  If you consider the direction of "The Eye", "Touch" and "The Key To Perfection" as the way Yello has developed over the last 10 years, then Meier's solo project doesn't really pursue that path further, but steps back to the more individualistic work and is better aligned to the left field of electronic music.  The "singing" is more of that deep tuneful talking too.  Sound quality is decent, but doesn't feel outstanding.

What's not there?  Well, you don't get that super sophisticated jazz-infused lushness of "Convergence", nor even of Yello's own work with the likes of Heidi Happy.  Curiously, the humour's not there either - this must come from the guys working together rather than them as individuals.

Conclusion:  I was going to write notes about each of the tracks.  But, to date, I just don't feel there's enough differentiation between the tracks to merit writing about them individually.  On a Yello album, Deiter Meier's vocal contributions are well placed and welcome - they're usually on the more sinister / quirky songs and are great when other tracks are pure instrumentals or feature guest vocalists.  But track after track, they become rather wearing and lose there mysterious edge - they just become a bit monotonous.  There are various musical stylings under the lyrics but they're hard to associate with - its a more electronic kind of sound - it doesn't sound as mature as Yello's and Blank's offerings.  Some tracks I've still to get all the way through, and there's a doubt that I'll bother.  So overall, rather a disappointment.

So there we have it.  I'm still looking forward to the next Yello album (hopefully there will be one) and would welcome more from Boris Blank and whoever he cares to collaborate with.  On the flip side, I won't worry too much if Meier produces another solo effort - you might like it, but its not for me.

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