Friday, October 9, 2009

Yes

In my last post I mentioned limitations to the FPE, but I didn't mention any specific problems except for the height issue. Another problem has brought itself to light recently.

Frances' little fingers lack the dexterity to reliably pick one single record from the shelf, and her little arms lack the strength to push the heavy records aside to pull a single record out. Thus, FPE picks are heavily weighted towards records at the ends of rows, and those that don't have the weight of other records resting on them.

That means some of the likeliest picks are smack in the middle of the Yes section.

This time around, I'm evaluating two Yes albums: Time and a Word (for which Frances was tasteful enough to select the British version, featuring an alternate cover with a Naked Lady on it) and Tormato. I am very, very grateful that she didn't pick Yessongs--but, it being a triple album, maybe the strength limitation of the FPE was on my side in this case.

Why do I even have a Yes section? The short answer is Buffalo 66. I can't remember a single thing that happened in this movie--all I have is a vague memory of a sense of ire crescendoing over the course of 90 minutes to a peak brought on by the preciousness of its auteur. That and a scene of an uncomfortable dinner with parents--oh I guess I did remember something. Way to go, Gallo.

There are two Yes songs in this film. One is "Starship Trooper", which plays in a pivotal scene involving some gimmicky camera work with a bullet (shoot, I remembered something else - well, really it's because of the Yes song), and whose profile is not helped at all by its appearance in this (or I suspect any) film. The other is "Sweetness", a gorgeous and uncharacteristically subdued early-career song that plays over the credits. Before this film came along, I had subscribed to the general feeling among my peers that Yes is "pretty lame". That dude's high nasally voice, the ridiculous lyrics, overblown songs that go nowhere and take 20 minutes to do it... After I heard "Starship Trooper", I revised my opinion to one summed up in an IM I made earlier today after playing Tormato for the first time in seven or eight years:

Matt Pakulski: oh man
Matt Pakulski: oh man
Matt Pakulski: Yes is pretty awesome



To enjoy Yes, you need to be aware that they are going to take you to some ludicrous places, that these are not necessarily places you think you'll want to go, and that it's all about that ridiculous up-front bass playing. Wakeman the keyboard player gets a lot of attention for his huge setups and ability to play a keyboard as well as your average classical pianist, but without that bass they would be Starcastle (yes, I have a Starcastle section too. Yes, I'm glad it's in the S's that Frances can't reach). Anderson's is not a voice that I particularly like the sound of, but it completes the sonic palette and occasionally provides effects that make you glad their vocalist isn't, say, Greg Ginn. Also Anderson's the chief songwriter, especially on the early records--but I think the actual songs (catchy syncopated vocal melodies wrapping around preposterous lyrics about celestial beings and the like) are much less interesting than the arrangements. For me, this group is all about those high highs--the two or three minutes in the middle of side one of Relayer (the mid-point of the side-long "The Gates of Delirium") where the guitar and bass melt the universe; the crashing waves of love at the climax of "Close to the Edge"; the part in "Starship Trooper" where they rush you to the edge of a cliff and then cast you into the eternal void. I can do without the many boring and/or awful bits--the classical indulgences they allowed Wakeman; the blissed-out, go-nowhere final movement of "The Gates of Delirium"; the ever-lazier reliance on a single ridiculous idea to carry an overlong composition that became their chief M.O. starting sometime in the late 70s.

Time and a Word is from early in their career, and they still sound hungry. This album is from before Wakeman joined the group with his cumbersome organ collection, so the sound is dominated by original organist Tony Kaye's B3, the always-awesome bass of Chris Squire, and Tony Cox's exciting orchestral string arrangements. At four tracks per side, the songs are concise for Yes, making for a less exhausting listen than some of their more bloated opi (Tales from Topographic Oceans, a double LP with four songs total, comes to mind as a diagram of real Yes excess [exYes?]).

The album explodes out of the box with the smoking "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed". It's a Richie Havens song, and I'm ashamed to say I'm not familiar with the original, but I think it's a fair guess that they've punched it up a bit. It flirts with actually rocking, in the blues-based sense, making it a comfortable introduction to Yes for the timid. From there on out, it's a satisfying album, each song allowed adequate space to develop a few ideas, no aimlessness, and no annoying tracks--the side-closing anthems “Sweet Dreams” and “Time and a Word” (sides one and two respectively) border on annoying but fade out before wearing out their welcomes. My other two favorite songs are the lovely “Clear Days”, barely two minutes and all strings in a fresh arrangement accompanying Jon Anderson's who-knows-what-he's-on-about lyrics, and “Astral Traveller” [sic] with its dark, dissonant vocal hook.

Tormato. A real head-scratcher, even for these guys. We'll start with the cover, designed by prog go-to artists Hipgnosis – apparently a combination of a tomato and a tornado. Why? Is it explained by any of the songs? Nope. By the time of this album's release in 1978, Yes had already dealt bombastically with the end of time and the birth of various new orders over the course of several vinyl juggernauts and arena tours. Presumably they were living some kind of rock star thing, with groupies and drugs and stuff--their previous album Going for the One had been the first to move in a pop direction, and this album seems like more of the new easier-to-swallow Yes.

As with Time and a Word, the opening number rules the planet. “Future Times / Rejoice” hits you with that Squire blonk and straight-up joyous marvel: “In the fountains of the Universe / Sits the boychild Solomon...” After this, unlike on Time and a Word, they veer badly off course. “Don't Kill the Whale” (unbelievably, a Top 40 hit) delivers on its title: “We will judge all who came / In the wake of our new age to stand for the frail / Don't kill the whale / CETACE!”

Double-you. Tee. Eff.

On further reflection, it occurs to me that “save the whales” was a cause in the 70s and 80s, so I guess this song was topical (and now dated) rather than being evidence of complete mindlessness on the part of Yes [mindlessYes?]. If we needed evidence of mindlessYes, though, it should suffice to remember the cover of this record. A tomato. And a tornado. A man, with some knives or something. Nonsense. Side one doesn't improve after this, the remainder being devoted to the insufferable Wakeman piece “Madrigal” and the appalling “Rejoice, Rejoice”. Seriously guys, this song is so unrelentingly ugly, what were you thinking?

Side two is a bit of something else. They have remained in la-la land, but kept their wits about them enough to chart a listenable path. The first two tracks, “Arriving UFO” and “Circus of Heaven” are the type of cheesy total insanity that could only have been made by Yes in 1978; a marvelous achievement. I love the end of “Circus of Heaven”: “On the dreamy ground we walked upon / I turned to my son and said / 'Was that something beautiful, amazing, wonderful, extraordinarily beautiful?'”, answered by a guest vocal from Jon's kid Damion, saying, “Oh it was ok, but there were no clowns, or lions, or tigers, no bears, no candy-floss, toffee apples, no clowns.”

Indeed. No clowns. Easy for you to say, Damion.

The final two tracks are certainly worth more than a cursory mention (well “Onward” isn't really; it's inoffensive and somewhat pleasant anyway), but I tire of this exercise, so I'll simply say that I also love the opening moments of “On the Silent Wings of Freedom”: the bass and drums casting about, sounding like nothing so much as when my band used to arrive at practice and start warming up, playing some crap and not listening, just getting the ice out of the fingers.

There you have it. Tormato. Not as consistent as Time and a Word, but more fun for sure. The verdict on Yes: their mind-boggling pretension takes them right over the top into silly land. I love them. Did I ever want to listen to either album again? Not at all. They both put a big stupid grin on my face though, so it appears that the FPE is doing its job. I need to make some tweaks to the engine though so I don't have to keep writing about Yes. Maybe a baby weight-lifting program at the Y. For now, I've shifted the Y section a bit so the weight is off the Neil Young records – maybe next time I'll be in for some thoughtful country-inflected classic rock stomp.

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