Friday, August 29, 2014

The Studio Albums of Yes, Part 4.

90125, 1983.  Owner of a Lonely Heart and Leave It are the hits, as well as the tracks that find the most idiosyncratic middle path between radio-ready pop shlock and new-wave rethinking of same. The rest of the album sounds like Toto's forgotten B-sides. New guy Trevor Rabin seems to have bypassed seniority issues to become the band leader and head writer; his slick craft and harmonic cleverness annoyed old Yes fans who missed Steve Howe's folkadelic streaks and smears and strums, but it was the 80s now. People who like Toledo should check out the song Our Song, which is about how Toledo is the best city in the USA, and also music is magic. The music in the actual song sounds like a toothpaste jingle.



Big Generator, 1987. Laminated production quality makes everything sheen and sparkle. They don't seem to have worked nearly so hard on the material, though standout track Shoot High, Aim Low has a misty predawn quality that welcomes and envelops the irruptions of contrasting voices and guitars. Attempts to recreate the old Yes suites take a few pleasant chances, as on I'm Running; the title track is a gimmicked-up retread of Owner of a Lonely Heart. Holy Lamb (Song for the Harmonic Convergence) fulfills its subtitle. I got in trouble for arranging a screening of the bawdy Rhythm of Love video in my English class on some forgotten pretext.



Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, 1989. Not officially a Yes album, but a reunion of all the key members of Yes's finest lineup except the one who controlled the rights to the band name (bassist Chris Squire.) This album relies on prettiness, pastiche, fanciness and fussiness. Late-80s digital synthesizers and digital drums sparkle and shimmer and shine, while layers of acoustic and electric guitars create a glittery mobile sculpture in then-fashionable shapes and colors. Lots of work must have gone into the stratigraphy of overdubs that made this album what it is, but as with Big Generator, all that craft and skill can't compensate for banality. Bill Bruford, the member with the best taste and the most artistically rewarding non-Yes career, has revealed in his memoir that he took this assignment on the grounds that he be a well-paid hired hand, able to save his artistic first fruits for his jazz ensemble Earthworks.

But I LOOOOVED it when it was new. I had only become a Yes fan (on the basis of Close to the Edge) about a year before this album appeared, and I listened to it every day on the walk from the bus stop to the house, enjoying the way the high trees and cocky brick houses embraced the shimmery archipelagoes of arpeggios this de facto Yes was pumping out. It's music for walking around suburbs in the late 80s.

Union, 1991. Less a reunion than a shotgun wedding between two bands, each consisting of 4 ex-Yes guys and various session cats. An armada of session musicians swamps most of the album, rendering it a factory-fresh product. A solo guitar spot by Steve Howe rises above the rest, while Miracle of Life (not an anti-abortion/creationist screed as far as I can tell) hints at the next album's more dynamic sound, with an organ riff that I still burst out singing in weak moments. Otherwise, all the sheen of the previous two albums, with little personality.

Talk, 1994. Essentially a Trevor Rabin/Jon Anderson duo album. Invigorating commercial pop if you like well-oiled rock guitar machinery resting on a bed of cushiony synths and processed vocal harmonies. Rabin's predilection for bombast does no one any favors. A compositional sensibility undergirds the whole enterprise, shaping this bit to fit nicely alongside this other bit, balanced by another bit. The final big long thing seems like a demo reel of soundtrack ideas, and perhaps it worked, because Rabin makes Tinseltown soundtracks now. Takes shots at televangelists, because Yes knows no fear.

Outside, 1995. Not a Yes album. A Bowie album that completely reprogrammed my musical interests. As a result, my engagement with the next few Yes albums was diffident at best. Anyway, Outside is a Twin Peaks concept album that recasts Leland Palmer with Chris Burden, and it blends musical vocabularies with the ambitious aplomb of prog rock in better days.



Keys To Ascension, 1996. Bland new live performances of old favorites. Guitarist Steve Howe sounds like he's straining to remember how this stuff goes, and the rhythm section is sluggish. Then there's some new studio material, with some peppy sections and nicely rubbery bass. If you're sitting on the fence about whether or not to smoke crack, this album has some things to say about that. I'm not sure how many potential crack addicts were buying 1990s Yes albums, but you can't fault Yes for trying.

Keys to Ascension 2, 1997. I can't help but think this might have been a really special album, but the sound is lacking. Guitars sound tinny, vocals sound strident. One gets the impression that the band is playing and singing as well as it can, but that there wasn't enough perfectionism in the sound engineering or mixing to capture and enrich what the performers were putting out. The best Yes producers (Eddie Offord, Trevor Horn) bound the band members' efforts in a rich broth. That doesn't happen here. Everything's too sterile and lit by fluorescents.

Open Your Eyes, 1997.  A side project converted into a Yes album. Various old Yes hands and session cats are parachuted in.  I complained about the sound quality on the previous album, but KtAII sounds like Pet Sounds next to this basement tape.  Which would be fine if this came out sounding cheerfully lo-fi, like Beat Happening or something, but of course Yes isn't about to do that. Potentially charming songs are undone by cheap ornamental effects. The cover art is just the classic Roger Dean logo from the 70s on a black background, and this spirit of not trying too hard pervades the album.

The Ladder, 1999. This time out they hired a proper producer for a change, and he got a pretty good album out of them, though sadly the effort literally killed him. A genuine spirit of enthusiasm and esprit de corps suffuses the album, and they perform with a verve they haven't shown in years. That said, I heard one song from here (If Only You Knew) on a soft rock station. It fit right in. Clearly, ambitions have settled, over the decades, into something more humble than the starry-eyed dreams of yesteryear.

Magnification, 2001. Working with an orchestra and an Emmy-award winning composer, Yes steers clear of the bombast and cheap prettiness that such a combo threatens, and produces some music that relies on restraint instead of the usual claptrap. Once I accepted that they wouldn't be taking advantage of the opportunity to channel Stravinsky (a key Yes influence in the 70s) I found that this one stuck to the ribs more than anything they'd released in many a moon. But only I bought it so they stopped recording new albums for a decade. Anyway, the last song on it, Time is Time, sounds like a lost track from The Yes Album 30 years before. A nice way to end.

But it wasn't the end.

Fly From Here, 2011.  I saw the boring video for the boring song with the new lead singer and passed on this one. The first Yes album I've shunned.

Heaven and Earth, 2014. Listened to a sample of this item with the NEW new lead singer. Sounded like an Air Supply tribute band that over-relies on synths. Pass.

To make up for punting on the last two Yes albums, here's a bonus round.

BONUS ROUND!

Symphonic Music of Yes, 1993. Should be titled Steve Howe with Bill Bruford and an orchestra that's not too proud. More Mantovani than Stravinsky. Only Mood For a Day, Steve Howe's beloved Jose Feliciano tribute, survives, because it gets a very different treatment, with a chamber orchestra adding sharp counterpoint instead of drizzling mayonnaise all over it like the rest of the album do.

Tales From Yesterday, 1995. My parents had a tribute album dedicated to Elton John that had an all-star cast. Yes's tribute album does not have an all star cast. It has once and future members of Yes, like they had to throw their own birthday party. Robert "has worked with some other prog rockers" Berry does a rendition of Yes's 70s signature song Roundabout that turns it all angular. Not my style, but I admire the willingness to take chances and reinvent a chestnut. Steve Morse's rendition of Mood For a Day doesn't reinvent; it's just lovely, like a fine cup of tea on a sunny, frosty day. Pickup band Stanley Snail (after Yes Lyric "Cold stainless nail" and featuring Zappa associate Mike Keneally) does a note-for-note of Siberian Khatru, and their fiery investment makes it sing. Other note-for-notes on the album just sit there. Original Yes guitarist Peter Banks demonstrates that he can still play sharp-edged but melodic rock guitar and will someone please hire him. (Poor Peter.) Spurned Yes keyboardist Patrick Moraz improvises on a Yes melody as only a Swiss jazzman can. Steve Howe teams with Annie Haslam (of prog act Renaissance.) Phrasing has never been Yes frontman Jon Anderson's strong suit, but he sounds like Billie Holliday next to Haslam's cloth-tongued realization of Turn of the Century, a pretty if drippy retelling of the Pygmalion myth.

I've been hard on Yes, but I'll always love them. Close to the Edge is perfect.  Goodnight.