What's Yazoo Up To?

According to the liner notes of Yazoo’s first album, Upstairs At Eric’s (1982), 21-year-old vocalist Alison Moyet had “advertised in a local music paper for a ‘rootsy blues outfit’.” Naturally, ex-Depeche Mode keyboardist Vince Clarke responded.

As Yazoo (renamed Yaz in the US, as not to interfere with the legendary Blues/Gospel record label of the same name), Moyet and Clarke made a strange pair. Their compositions juxtaposed her classical, gorgeous, soul-drenched voice against his slender, modern, quirky synth-pop, resulting in a beguiling but oddly cheerful mix, almost like Ella Fitzgerald fronting Kraftwerk. They had a string of hits in the UK (“Only You”, “Situation”, “Don’t Go”), achieved cult status in the States, and abruptly broke up after their second album.

Two years later, Clarke formed another duo, Erasure, with male vocalist Andy Bell, while Moyet pursued a solo career. Initially, Bell sounded like little more than a male Moyet impersonator. Fortunately, his chemistry with Clarke soon became apparent, and the result was a sterling, ABBA-worthy run of bouncy, energetic hit UK singles, and they even cracked the top twenty in America on three occasions. What set Erasure apart from Yazoo was not only their tenacity (Clarke has stayed with Bell nine times as long as he did with Moyet) but also Bell’s over-the-top, openly gay persona. At the height of their popularity (1988-89), Bell admirably managed to be both a teen idol and an out pop star. Just listen to the lyrics of “Chains of Love” or “A Little Respect”, which has the immortal line, “What religion or reason, should a man decide to try and forsake his lover,” to comprehend how significant Erasure were for the time.

Although Moyet amassed more than a few big hits of her own in the UK, her impact was never nearly as great in the States, scoring just one top thirty hit (the incomparable “Invincible") in 1985. Her 1995 “Singles” compilation suggests a career that’s nothing to scoff at, displaying more artistic growth than Erasure ever achieved, even credibly covering Billie Holiday (“That Ole’ Devil Called Love”) and Roberta Flack (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is nearly as sweet as the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”). But she only made four (uneven) records in a decade. Then, after “Singles”, nothing at all.

After 1997’s lackluster “Cowboy”, Erasure was conspicuously absent from American music shelves as well. They took a long-needed break, and recorded “Loveboat”, an unfortunately titled but important release. They sounded revitalized and, for the first time in years, interesting. On “Loveboat” they enhanced their signature synth-soul with snatches of acoustic guitar, Phil Spector-ish orchestration, and detours into rave and hip-hop beats. Of course, it sank in the UK, and did not even receive a domestic release (their US label, Maverick, couldn’t hear any hits off it.)

So, Erasure has just had their first American release in six years (via Mute USA) and Moyet has just had her first release, period, in eight. Erasure’s “Other People’s Songs”, is exactly what the title says it is. In an interview conducted circa “Loveboat”, Bell enthusiastically talked about doing a solo covers album of 1950s/60s tunes, and the idea certainly piqued my enthusiasm. I’ve been dying to hear Bell work with someone other than Clarke, to hear his voice against real strings, a jazz quartet, or maybe even a traditional guitar-drums-bass arrangement. Comparisons to Moyet aside, he has a versatile voice, equally adept and startling at high and low registers, and it’s been getting stronger, deeper, and lovelier with each record.

Somewhere along the way, Clarke joined in the covers project. His presence both ruins and makes it barely tolerable. The main problem (indeed, with his whole career) is that he adds nothing new or refreshing to these songs but the same tired-sounding, twinkly, beepy, cheesy analog synths. It’s especially disappointing after the experimentation of “Loveboat”, and it makes uninspired, oft-covered choices like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”, and “Video Killed The Radio Star” (even the Presidents of the United States of America did this one better!) sound pointless and lifeless. On the other hand, some of Clarke’s choices work, especially the more obscure, less obvious ones. Peter Gabriel’s catchy but ambiguous “Solsbury Hill” is given a spry, loopy makeover (and ends up sounding more like the band’s superb early hit ‘Victim of Love”). Better yet, Cockney Rebel’s “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” has a positively and (sadly, for this album) uncharacteristically giddy vocal from Bell. It’s the only track on “Other People’s Songs” that conveys the same abandon and glee the duo achieved on “Abba-Esque”, their superior 1992 EP of ABBA covers.

Moyet’s been in sort of a hibernation over the past eight years, so it seems fitting that her new record is called “Hometime”. Most of its songs center around the final, crumbling stages of a relationship, and its aftermath (though not necessarily in that order.) Some of the titles alone (“Yesterday’s Flame”, “Should I Feel That It’s Over”, “If You Don’t Come Back To Me”, “You Don’t Have To Go”) suggest heartbreak, turmoil and loss. Yet, unlike failed relationship records du jour such as Beck’s “Sea Change”, it’s strangely, beautifully uplifting. This is the sound of a woman sifting through memories, considerations, disappointments and misunderstandings. Although the devastation in Moyet’s still-thunderous voice is loud and clear, she sounds remarkably stronger than ever, devoid of pity or lethargy.

The music on “Hometime” was conceived and recorded with a collective of musicians called The Insects. They come off like an earthier, lusher Massive Attack, augmenting subtle electronics with strings and more guitars than Moyet has ever had on any of her recordings (apart from the Aretha Franklin-worthy “Solid Wood”, which closed out “Singles” and suggested a rich direction Moyet finally pursues here.) These songs have hooks that cunningly sneak up on you. Take “Say It”, where she gradually, delicately lays out each line (“Love... you... gave.../so com-plete/I want... you... back...”) until letting loose in the chorus, tumultuously repeating the song’s title a memorable seven times in succession. Or the rock-soul flavored “This Train I Ride”, where Moyet and her backup boys manage to sound as sweet as Dusty Springfield, gritty as Tina Turner, and as commanding of the rhythm as any disco diva you’d care to name.

“Hometime” is an amalgamation of what Moyet’s been working towards since “Upstairs At Eric's”. You hear not so much the ghost of Billie Holiday on the title track as her influence on Moyet, who takes inspiration from Lady Day’s phrasing but transforms it with her own sensibility. “Should I Feel That It’s Over” has a keen sense of dynamics, enveloping tragedy with a sense of discovery, made oddly warm by its guitars and strings arrangement. On “Ski”, her voice clicks with the electronics as gracefully as it ever did with Clarke. And “You Don’t Have To Go” is a stunning, gospel-flavored closer; Moyet’s fluent, urgent plead is absolutely startling in its immediacy, especially as it threatens to careen out of control against effectively building guitars, strings and Hammond organ.

Perhaps Erasure should look to the magnificent “Hometime” for inspiration when they record their next album. On this dazzling record, Moyet keeps all her strengths intact--there’s no mistaking this album as coming from anyone else--but refines her sound and approach so that the voice, lyrics and music all come together masterfully. Forget Jennifer Lopez; this woman is real.