Yazoo (known as Yaz in the US) was one of England’s most engaging synth-pop duets, mostly because of the sharp contrast provided between vocalist Alison “Alf” Moyet’s incredibly rich and soulful voice and the high-tech instrumentation of ex-Depeche Mode synthesist/songwriter Vince Clarke — he of the band’s earliest and fluffiest pop songs like “Just Can’t Get Enough.” In hindsight, Yazoo’s stylistic breakthrough proved influential in the development of electronic-based dance music.
While Upstairs at Eric’s is admirable for its experimentalism, it contains just one really striking song (the beautiful ballad “Only You”), some moderately good quirky pop (“Too Pieces,” “Bad Connection”) and the two sturdy dance numbers (“Don’t Go” and “Situation”) that highlight Moyet’s sensual presence and became the band’s calling cards. (Ignore the truly awful tape-looping exercise “I Before E Except After C.”)
You and Me Both offers a better selection, from Moyet’s defiant and atmospheric “Nobody’s Diary” and funky “Sweet Thing” to Clarke’s bouncy “Walk Away from Love.” There are some serious low-points to be sure, but in general it’s a more even and exciting album, further exploring the blend’s possibilities. Given the dynamic tension of the partnership, it was hardly surprising when Moyet and Clarke decided, after two albums, to go their separate ways: he to form the Assembly and, later, Erasure and she to a successful (in Britain) solo career.
On Alf, Moyet’s amazing pipes are supported by smooth synth-and-drums dance music created by full-service producers Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, who co-wrote the material and played on it as well. Moyet’s consistently great singing and her producers’ impersonal backing leave songwriting the only variable, and that’s unfortunately what it is. Other than “All Cried Out,” the coyly tasteless “Love Resurrection” and Lamont Dozier’s magnificent “Invisible,” there aren’t many tunes in the winning column. What made Yazoo work was great writing; judging by Alf, maybe Moyet’s symbiotic partnership with Clarke wasn’t such a weird idea after all.
Producer Jimmy Iovine stayed out of the other aspects of the creative process on Raindancing, leaving Moyet to take greater responsibility for the material. Although sincere enough, her lyrics about romantic challenges don’t amount to much; the mostly collaborative music is plain but sturdy, allowing Moyet’s rich voice to do the work. Standouts are “Glorious Love,” “Is This Love?” and Floy Joy’s wonderful “Weak in the Presence of Beauty.” The low point is the stiflingly schmaltzy “Sleep Like Breathing.”
Hoodoo is more varied in tone, again with Moyet taking co-author credits on most of the material. “This House” (which she wrote alone) has the same sense of drama that made her performance of Yaz’s “Winter Kills” so haunting; “Hoodoo” and “Footsteps” are upbeat tracks that work either on the dancefloor or as catchy cocktail party music.
Essex contains two fine singles — the sparkling “Whispering Your Name” (a Jules Shear cover, with the gender roles tweaked slightly) and the lithe dancefloor shimmy “Falling,” which calls to mind the material from Kirsty MacColl’s Titanic Days. There’s also a new version of an old Yaz b-side, “Ode to Boy,” and its sequel, “Ode to Boy II.” The rest of the album is hard to recall, although it’s unfailingly well-sung and artfully arranged.
Singles is a generous and chronological sequence of highlights from the two Yaz albums and Moyet’s first four solo records, plus a host of previously unreleased tracks, including a lamentable version of “That Ole Devil Called Love” but also an excellent cover of Ewan MacColl’s “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” It isn’t necessarily a criticism to note that a disproportionate percentage of the best tracks are covers; Moyet has always been a more gifted vocalist and intepreter than a songwriter. Given the mixed history of her solo albums, this may be the best place to start. The later Essential Alison Moyet is almost as long (20 as opposed to 21 tracks) but lacks the brilliant “Only You” and adds more late-period Moyet.
The Best of Yaz is an acceptable if unimaginative recap of eleven Yaz highlights (“Only You,” “Nobody’s Diary,” “Winter Kills,” etc.) plus such impressive B-sides as “Ode to Boy” and remixes of “Situation” (twice), “Don’t Go” and “Only You” by Todd Terry. While The Best of Yaz usefully reminds current listeners of the duo’s relevance in the development of dance music and electronic pop, it does reflect the fact that band’s history was limited to two albums of mixed quality, plus a handful of singles. You may as well get the originals.