Yazoo Upstairs at Eric's
etween leaving Depeche Mode in 1981 and starting Erasure with Andy Bell in 1986, Vince Clarke joined with Allison Moyet to form Yazoo. This was shortened to Yaz in the United States because of legal action from an American record label already using Yazoo in its name. Clarke and Moyet produced two albums, Upstairs at Erics (1982) and You and Me Both (1983); a live album, Reconnected Live (2010), was recorded 25 years later. Yazoo continued the pop sensibilities of Clarkes contributions to Depeche Mode ("Just Cant Get Enough," "New Life") and married them to Moyets soulful, bluesy vocals. The resulting sound was fresh among early-'80s synth-pop artists and a harbinger for todays pop music. Moyets vocals have more in common with Aretha Franklin than the deadpan delivery of other synth-pop acts like Depeche Mode or Gary Numan. The vocal delivery for many of these artists seems like an attempt to make the voice just one more non-natural sound -- albeit one conveying linguistic meaning; there is never a doubt about the emotion and humanity behind Moyets vocals. It is hard to imagine contemporary dance-pop artists like La Roux or Lady Gaga existing without Yazs influence.
Clarke initially wondered if record labels would pass over the demo recordings he had made with Moyet, in part because there was no blueprint to follow for the kind of music they were making. That exploratory nature comes through in the music on their debut album. There are several straight-ahead pop songs ("Dont Go," "Bad Connection") played on synthesizers rather than traditional instruments and some more experimental pieces ("I Before e Except After c," "In My Room"). Listening today, the latter are less successful because they now sound not experimental enough. The odd, voiceover vocals of "I Before e except after c," for example, are easily dated and sound like someone practicing recording techniques. The more direct pop songs, such as "Dont Go," "Situation," and "Bring Your Love Down," are more successful, and I continue to hear them played at dance clubs even now -- not as golden oldies but mixed in flawlessly with contemporary songs.
As with Clarkes later writing for Erasure, the use of synthesizers and electronics in Yazs recordings is an artistic choice. Especially in the early '80s, electronic pop was criticized as not requiring musical talent and relying on machines over the skill and musicianship of the artist (working musicians also feared synthesizers could put them out of work). Yazs songs stand as evidence against such criticism. They do not rely on electronics for their success or composition, but instead have a backbone of traditional songwriting. The songs could succeed using more traditional instruments, as can be heard for many of Clarkes later compositions on the acoustic Erasure album, On The Road to Nashville.
The marriage between electronic music and blues- or soul-influenced vocals has become the norm in pop music, but Upstairs at Erics is possibly the first album to succeed in this vein. There are certainly electronic pop records from before 1982 that are artistically successful, such as Kraftwerks Trans-Europe Express (1977) or even Depeche Modes Speak and Spell (1981), for which Clarke wrote all but one song. These earlier successes, however, do not rely on powerful female vocals like Moyet achieves on Upstairs at Erics. In terms of musical legacy, contemporary songs like Lady Gagas "Born this Way" or "Bad Romance," La Rouxs "Bulletproof" or Madonna in the 2000s all appear influenced by Yazs '80s output.
Mobile Fidelitys Silver Label pressing of Upstairs at Erics was mastered from the original tapes using their Gain 2 system to bring out the best in these recordings. Moyets vocals have more breath behind them and the soundstage expands across my listening room. My original US pressing has noticeably more surface noise, less dynamic range (faltering both in high frequencies and bass definition) and feels more closed in. In 2008, Yaz released In Your Room, a comprehensive digital retrospective composed of three CDs and a DVD that contains both videos and 5.1 surround mixes of the original albums. I have not heard this set to comment on its sound, but it seems a reasonable alternative for those without turntables or who favor surround sound.
Original vinyl copies of Upstairs at Erics are available for slightly less than youd pay for this new pressing, but the improved sound and hardly noticeable price difference make this MoFi release the vinyl edition to get. I hope to see You and Me Both in the Silver Label queue soon.
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