Friday, April 22, 2005

Talk about Yes; talk about Talk

Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about Yes, about what makes their best music both distinctive and worth a bit of your consideration. To those of you wondering why I'm posting about a band that, for most people, ceased to matter much after "Owner of a Lonely Heart," allow me to supply some context.
One of the very first albums I bought was The Yes Album. Well, okay: my dad bought it for me; for reasons now lost to me, we went record-shopping one Saturday and I found it in the bargain bin ($2) and he said okay. My father, pretty much open to all kinds of music, said, midway through "Yours Is No Disgrace," "When is it going to do its thing?" What do parents know, right? I was entranced. And I still am, especially by their older music (more about that later). Fast forward to November of last year, when I went to visit my children for Thanksgiving; one of the CDs I took along was House of Yes: Live from House of Blues, and I intended, really I did, to post something about Yes soon after. The road to hell . . . Anyway. In the interim, I ran across the exceedingly difficult-to-find Talk, the last album from the Jon Anderson-Trevor Rabin-Chris Squire-Tony Kaye-Alan White configuration of the band, recently rereleased and with an alternate cut besides, and I snatched it up and, a couple of months later, I still pop it into the CD player with the goal of deciding whether or not I like it (whether it is "Yes music" is another matter entirely, and a tar pit I'll sorta stick my toe into but not jump into--those so inclined can find any number of fora more than happy to accommodate y'all). It's not their most recent album, but Talk (1994) is a pretty good case study, for this fan at least, about what Yes once was and is becoming, for better or for worse.
Somewhere in his particular corner of the official Yes website, Jon Anderson says that Trevor Rabin's liability to the band was that "he couldn't write Yes music." Well duh, Jon. He's a different sort of guitarist from Steve Howe; his orientation, if not his background, seems more pop-based than classical. But the very structure of Yes's songs--which, to be honest, began to change with Drama and thus can't be blamed on Rabin--is different on the Rabin albums. He tries to write one in the old style on "Endless Dream," but it seems ill-formed (and I read somewhere recently that Victory (the label that released Talk) asked him to write something "epic" and he was reluctant to do so--probably because he knows he's not that kind of writer. I think as well that Anderson has in mind the lyrics of Rabin's songs, but I'll leave that alone for the moment.
Traditional pop songs have sturdy verse-chorus structures with, perhaps, a bridge or an instrumental break in them, but still and all their outward shape tells us pretty much what we're gonna find "inside" them in terms of their structure. Now: consider the structure of Yes's best-known older song, "Roundabout":

The intro;
then the first verse, with a sustained note at its end;
then the second verse, the sustained note now leading to the first appearance of the chorus ("In and around the lake/Mountains come out of the sky . . .");
then a little teasing organ flourish from Rick Wakeman;
then the third verse and chorus;
then Wakeman's teasing flourish turns into the song's bridge ("Along the drifting cloud/the eagle searching down on the land . . .");
then a reprise of the intro;
then the chorus revisited as that roaring bash of an instrumental break;
then the final verse-chorus;
then the song's conclusion (those lovely harmonized "da-da-da-doo-da-da-da's," followed by yet another reprise--Howe's acoustic guitar lick that leads into the first verse of the song).

Can you see it? The song's structure grows from within, rather like a plant emerging from a seed but never quite leaving behind its starting point. Not every Yes song does that, but many of the older ones do. The song grows in its structural complexity as it progresses. Yes has always been about skilful playing (Alan White is a fine drummer, but I do miss Bill Bruford's "I can play everything and I do mean EVERYthing" drums, even after 30 years), but I think that what I really keep coming back for are those marvelously-intricate song structures.
Now: On Talk, the one song I cannot seem to hear enough is the opening track, "The Calling." Let me just say that Yes has never written before such an unabashedly-mainstream-rock-n-roll-y chorus, as regards its music. Some Yes purists might see that as condemnation; I'd say to them that the unabashedly-mainstream-rock-n-roll-y chorus, though often maligned, nevertheless has survived for a reason, and how this song deploys it is more than enough justification for its continued survival. It is reminiscent of "Roundabout"'s chorus, but with less restraint. The other songs, with the exception of "Endless Spring," are more or less okay; but if one song from this album deserves to make it into the live repertoire, it's this one.
But: good rock song though it is, it doesn't have the sort of intricate structure that I outlined above. I'll have to listen again to the more recent albums to confirm this, but the newer material is, I'd venture to say, absent it as well. Yes: Yes have been becoming a fairly pedestrian (for them) rock band, musically speaking. Chris Squire's bass, once almost as much a lead instrument as Howe's guitar, now sorta pleasantly plunks along rhythmically (except in "The Calling," where it bears a fair amount of the responsibility for the melody); Wakeman's keyboards' settings sound as though he hasn't fiddled with them since the mid-70's; even Howe's solos are a bit blah, something that you can't say about his best work with the band. Saddest of all, the lyrics are beginning to make sense. And though love of one's fellows and seeking spiritual transcendance are worthy things to espouse, the best Yes songs didn't preach; they created worlds which, as we contemplated them, revealed those messages. So: the more direct the message has become, the less intricate the music has become. Adding symphony orchestras (as occurs on 2001's Magnification) doesn't hide that fact.
So: Is music like "The Calling" the best we can hope for from this group? I don't know; what I do know, based on the reviews of Talk that I've read recently, is that that album was Rabin's show. And he's no longer with the band. The "classic" line-up IS back together, though, and though bands that have been together for almost 40 years have every right to evolve, it WOULD be nice to have their new music matter, even if in a different way, as much as the older music did and does.

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10 comments:

sutrix said...

The song you've mentioned (Owner of the Lonely Heart) is the only Yes song I've heard, and that too as one of the radio songs in the game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I don't swing too much to the Electropop-Rock genre (which is where the song--if not the band--belongs), but this song does have that certain melody which you find yourself humming whether you like it or not. Are all of their songs in the same vein?

fearful_syzygy said...

Heh. I think 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' is about as characteristic of Yes's oeuvre as 'Invisible Touch' is of Genesis's. Or, if you prefer, as 'Jump' is of Van Halen's.

I must confess I've never been much of a fan of Yes. There are two reasons for this: firstly, I don't believe I'd ever heard a Yes song, other than 'OoaLH', until about six years ago, when I was no longer that heavily into the whole Prog scene (and it's debatable whether I ever really was, seeing as I was only ever a fan of Pink Floyd and King Crimson, never of ELP or indeed Genesis), and secondly, I've never much warmed to Jon Anderson's voice. He makes a guest appearance on KC's album Lizard, and I was always somewhat nonplussed by his performance, which may also go some way towards explaining why I never ventured as far as the Y section of my local music emporium.

I do however know what you mean about these Prog dinosaurs not living up to their past glories. I can remember feeling nothing but disdain for friends of mine who considered The Division Bell to be their favourite Pink Floyd album, purely because it was the first one they'd heard. At the time I was firmly of the conviction that anything they'd done since Roger Waters left the band in 1983 was of little worth, comparatively. By which I mean that I still bought and listened to A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, as well as the live albums that followed each, and it's still good, but post-Waters Floyd is a very different band to Pink Floyd in its heyday, and not one that could ever have produced a 'Wall' or even a 'Wish You Were Here'. But what are you going to do? The alternative, I suppose, is to go the Iron Maiden route of re-recording the same album again and again, for fear of angering die-hard fans and suffering accusations of 'selling out'.

I suppose the only thing one might have wished for, is that they had quit while they were ahead, instead of tarnishing their once glorious reputation with inadequate attempts at prolonging it.

fearful_syzygy said...

Ah yes, I almost forgot to wish you a Happy Birthday, John! Save us some cake, will ya?

John B. said...

Sutrix,
Mr. Syzygy answered your question as well as I could have. And as for Fearful's comment, you're right: as I've been thinking about it, what is true of Yes is, potentially, true of any band who is so long-lived. A group establishes a sound, an audience gathers around it and, as with any marriage, they are stuck with each other, for better or for worse.
The albums with Trevor Rabin get slammed by many fans because, as I noted, Rabin is not Steve Howe--not because the music is bad. And that seems unfair to both Rabin and, one has to assume, the other members' willingness to try out this very different sound. But: compared to the older music, those three albums lose a great deal in their structural complexity even as they gain in their more modern sonics. They sound like they're headed in the direction of Robert Plant's albums with Robbie Blunt (something like The Principle of Moments, a beautiful, musically-adventurous album), but their pop sensibilities don't let the band quite get there.
Since the post, I've been listening to Keystudio, Yes's album recorded when Wakeman came back around the turn of the millenium. It's weird: sonically, it sounds like the mid-Seventies again; lyrically, though, it is much more accessible than the older songs. As for the songs' structure, unless I'm missing something, they feel not built but cut and pasted. In other words, nothing I'm hearing makes me change the judgments I made in the post.

sutrix said...

Thanks, John B. and f_s.

f_s, I like both A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell. Their sound (and just about everything else) is distinctly different from the Roger Waters Pink Floyd we all know, sure, but that should be expected, shouldn't it? I don't like the Syd Barrett Pink Floyd sound (and words) a lot, so his leaving the band was a huge blessing, as their sound changed. The post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd does not live up to the monumental greatness of Wish You Were Here, Dark Side of the Moon or even The Wall, but it is by no means inferior music. Call it the David Gilmour Pink Floyd sound.

Quitting while you're ahead sounds good, but no band would do it. Or at least not as easily as we can say it. Fame and money and the whole larger-than-life image are as great addictions as any, I suppose.

fearful_syzygy said...

Sorry I didn't mean to say that AMLoR and TDB were bad (and reading back over my comment I still don't think I did, but more than one person seems to have got that impression so allow me to set the record straight). I think they're both good albums, and I fully accept the fact that a Waters-less Floyd is bound to sound different. Not worse, just different.

What I meant was that at 14-15-16 when I met people and they asked me what kind of music I listened to, and I said Pink Floyd and they went 'oh yeah, Division Bell, man', I was less than impressed. Basically because I was exhibiting the classic symptoms of music snobbery, i.e. something akin to the disdain the nineteenth century European aristocracy felt for the nouveaux riches; I'd been listening to PF for years, and they'd evidently only just discovered them and were thus worthy of nothing other than unmitigated scorn.

Since then I've come to dispise this sort of attitude; the one where you either refuse to listen to a band once their video is on MTV, or else automatically look down your nose at people who have only recently discovered a band you like — like for instance the 'dedication' on this guitar tab — when surely you should be pleased that your favourite band is being successful, and that other people share an interest with you.

But that's just not the way it works, is it? Unfortunately.

John B. said...

F_S,
I've never understood that sort of snobbery that you describe, either. It's like when Mrs. Meridian is distressed to see those hordes of people attending Coldplay concerts in the live DVD I bought her: "What are all those people doing grooving on MY band??"
My affliction, if it can be called that, is just the opposite: I WANT people to know more about what I like, thinking that something like world peace would surely come about if everyone shared in my tastes . . . which, it goes without saying, are unassailable (he says as he guiltily--and smilingly--hears the chorus to "You Give Love a Bad Name" echoing in his cranium).

sutrix said...

f_s, you didn't say that those albums were bad. If anything I said in my comment implies you did, pardon me.

I do understand what you mean. When was that age, and when I mentioned Pink Floyd, people always went, "Oh, those folks who go we don't need no education, right?" And then they gave me a look which can best be described as iffy.

It becomes the band's identity, is what I mean to say.

For example, Madonna has written two songs I simply adore. One is Sanctuary (which, if you decide to give it a shot, should be played at a rather high volume to get all the ambient nuances, preferably on headphones), the other is Paradise. They are nothing like the usual junk Madonna produces, and though I don't like her on the whole, whenever someone says Madonna sucks, I don't completely agree.

John B., this is just my opinion (in detail in my blog), but I think you can't really share tastes. Two or more people can share the particular object of the taste in question--a band, say--but no two people can like--or love--something with the exact same intensity. Perhaps I'm simply misinterpreting the word taste.

Or perhaps I'm wrong, but so far I've seen absolutely no evidence to prove so.

sutrix said...

I meant "When I was at that age" in the second paragraph of the above comment. Blogger should add a comment editing facility.

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