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Yes - 90125 CD (album) cover

90125

Yes

 

Symphonic Prog

2.99 | 1506 ratings

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cfergmusic1
3 stars How did Yes, one of the world's premier prog-rock bands, manage to completely retool their sound and make a hit record in the age of MTV? Well, a good deal of it has to do with Trevor Horn. After the Drama line-up (and effectively Yes) split up in late 1980, Horn decided that his talents were better suited to producing (which he probably helped out with on Drama) rather than singing, and managed to parlay that into a rather successful career with many top-name artists before the current album was even considered. Meanwhile, Chris Squire and Alan White put together a few different bands to pass the time, notably XYZ (with Jimmy Page) and Cinema, a joint collaboration with South African guitarist/songwriter/singer Trevor Rabin. Most of the songs written with Cinema wound up on this release; in fact, even when Jon Anderson came back into the fold (no small feat in itself), Rabin was not keen on calling the new band Yes because the music was so different from the 70s material. However, when previous lead singer Horn got the call to produce the record, and when original keyboardist Tony Kaye also returned after a 12-year absence, it seemed as if no-one could do anything about it. This was Yes, and they were back in business after a couple years off. (By the way, the title of this album is not a Los Angeles ZIP code, but rather the original catalog number issued by Atco.)

Unlike, it seems, a lot of "classic Yes" fans, I actually have great respect for Trevor Rabin as a musical craftsman. At his best, he's one of the greatest in his field and generally underrated on the whole; at his worst, though, he's uninspired and entirely derivative of any other 80s corporate rock bands, despite his best intentions. For someone who basically turned the world of South African rock on its ear with his late-70s band, Rabbitt, and who would later go on to write tons of Hollywood film soundtracks, I'm a little bit surprised that his first outing with Yes is as uneven as it is. I won't go as far as to call it "overrated" since the tracks that everyone knows it for are actually the best ones, but it's never sat quite as well with me as I think it should. Whether that's my problem or Trevor's, I'm still not sure.

Anyway, we begin with "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which has the distinction of being the very first Yes song I ever heard at the ripe old age of 8, before I even knew it was Yes! (At that time I always misheard the title lyric as "Owner of a lonely hut.") Opening like no Yes record ever before, with drum cadences leading to that guitar riff, this song immediately says "Welcome to the 80s." It's not a terribly jarring transition as Jon Anderson's voice is still the first you hear, although his lyrical contribution is limited to the typically Jon-like rumination during the tonic-chord vamps after the chorus. Other aspects of the 80s are found in the "high-vocal" and "orchestra hit" samples which apparently came from another record that Trevor Horn was working on at the time. Rabin's guitar tone is heavily processed (a novel idea for 1983), and his solo halfway through is bolstered by the use of a harmonizer. The bell-like video-game keyboard tones at 3:30 are also reminiscent of "Going for the One," showing that Yes hadn't lost touch with their past. Without a doubt the "signature" track from this album, objectively great and with a fantastic video to boot (remember, these were the days of MTV), and to this day Yes' only #1 hit.

"Hold On," despite having a horribly unoriginal title (seriously, do an AllMusic search), is another powerful track. The first ballad here, it benefits from a rock-solid 12/8 groove that is occasionally tripped up a bit (in a good way) by Alan White, who otherwise suffers from the typical "80s drum sound" for most of the album. This piece manages to avoid complete "power-ballad" territory due to its minor-key verses, cracking vocal harmonies and a cappella 3rd verse, with vocal arrangements more intelligent than any to be found in this kind of music. Rabin's guitar solo at the end vamp is cool but I wish the track didn't fade out just when he gets going. Speaking of Rabin, I think some of the keyboard work on this album may be split up between him and Kaye; however, since they have pretty similar playing styles, it's hard to tell who's doing what (although some of the more technical runs may be Rabin).

"It Can Happen" introduces a new sound to Yes: an actual sitar instead of the electric sitar/guitar that Steve Howe used to play. This addition makes for one of the more interesting tracks here, with one of Jon's best vocal contributions. Rabin takes over lead vocals for the chorus ("Look up, look down"?) and I think we even hear a bit of Squire's backup harmonies there as well. Speaking of Squire, his contributions on bass are not exactly up to the standard set by previous albums, but then again, I suppose that comes with the territory of 80s rock, as accomplished as this is. Anyway, hooks aplenty here and most of them are very good, and there's also a bit of "walkie-talkie" going on after the 2nd chorus (not sure if someone in the band is doing that or if it's another sample). Jon's voice rides out the fade with the others chanting away behind him; it all makes for one of the best tracks on the album.

Unfortunately it all comes to a screeching halt with "Changes," the intro to which must be the most obvious way to appease the classic Yes fans. I'm not particularly a fan of it, but the song itself is even worse. Rabin sings lead vocals and evidently he wrote the bulk of the song; this certainly isn't a comment on him because he's written too many great songs to let one bad one spoil it. However, there's just something about this track that makes me hate it far more than I should and actually ruins my enjoyment of the album a bit. Maybe it's the grade-school lyrics, the minor-key stasis of the main tune (which basically only has one chord for the most part), or that the track is about one or two minutes too long to begin with (due to needless repetition of the out-chorus). Whatever the case, I just can't bring myself to enjoy any part of this, and it's really too bad; again, Rabin is capable of so much better.

Speaking of references to classic Yes, "Cinema" is the opener for side two; one could think of this as being the "theme song" for the early version of his band before it became Yes, again much to Rabin's consternation. An exciting tune, to be sure, and it definitely shows that Rabin could write more prog-oriented stuff when he wanted to?but really I see it as just an intro to?

"Leave It" was the other Big Hit from this album, featuring more of those delicious vocal harmonies in the intro. Rabin sings lead on the first verse and Jon takes the second verse (why do I have a feeling Jon wrote all the lyrics though?); the bass movement in the chorus is some of Squire's best work here, even if it is doubled with Kaye's (or Rabin's) synth bass. The choruses also contain some violin in the background; like about a million other people, I used to think it was Eddie Jobson (Kaye's very brief replacement) until I learned that the violinist is actually someone named Graham Preskett, whoever he is. Anyway, the best part about this tune is the vocal arrangements, which utilize some counterpoint, metric displacement and even hemiolas (against the rhythm section, but still)?very hip stuff for its time. (I think the mega-high harmonies on the intro-reprise?"I can feel no sense of measure"?might be either Squire or Rabin. If that's Rabin, he's even sicker than I thought he was.)

"Our Song" seems to be Yes' love letter to? Toledo, Ohio? Not sure why they're referencing this town so much in the song since Yes only played there a couple times, and I doubt I'll ever know the answer. Another strange aspect about this song is the ice-rinky-dink (how's that for a turn of phrase?) keyboard riff in the intro, a bit cheesy but not that easy to count to. The chord movements at the ends of verses are nice, but this is just a "fair-to-middling" track for me. At least we get to hear Alan's real drum sound for a while.

"City of Love" was apparently written after Rabin landed in a bad part of New York, and parts of the intro are appropriately spooky and menacing (in an 80s sort of way). Unfortunately the song itself reeks far too much of nondescript arena rock, as exemplified by the chorus of "We'll be waiting for the night to come" as well as Rabin's whammy-bar theatrics (subtle but noticeable). I'm still not sure why Trevor Horn thought it was a good idea to include tracks like this on the album, but then again, he's producing multi-platinum records and I'm not, so yeah.

With "Hearts" we reach possibly the nadir of the album. This track tries way too hard to be the 80s version of "And You And I," only with a far less interesting structure. Like "Changes" at the end of side one, this is an overlong, overdone mess, hampered further by the failed "faux-ethereal" effects of the first 2 1/2 minutes, after which the weak, sappy chorus finally enters. There's barely any interesting instrumental work on this track, and the band sounds tired?all of which I suppose could be forgiven if the track ended halfway decently. As it is, the band essentially gives up, with nothing but keys and vocals leading to an overly quick fade-out that seems to say "We couldn't save this record, so let's just bow out now." Just awful, not even a good track to end on (I felt ripped off by the ending for years).

So, you know how bands will occasionally release remastered versions of their albums with bonus tracks, and most of those are better than the actual album? Well, that is certainly the case with the 2004 Rhino/Elektra 90125 remaster, which contains six bonus tracks, to wit: two remixes of "Leave It," one each of "Owner" and "It Can Happen," and two Rabin-penned tunes, "Make It Easy" and "It's Over." The alternate "It Can Happen" is the original Cinema demo which actually betters the album version in some respects (the drums don't sound like amplified pizza boxes, for one), whereas the "extended remix" of "Owner" sounds like a 3-year-old hijacked the master tapes and dumped every possible effect from "My First Sony" onto the tracks (not a fan). The single version of "Leave It" contains more prominent violin in the foreground, and the a cappella remix is exactly that?the isolated vocal tracks from the album version (without those pesky silences in between, like "Because" on the Beatles' Anthology 3).

As for the originals, "Make It Easy" (which first cropped up on 1991's Yesyears box) is far and away the best of the extras; here Rabin shows great care in making the chord movement subtly different in each verse, with plenty of great hooks and nifty background figures throughout. This track also contains some of Alan White's best drumming in years (he once again pulls a Bruford in the second verse by using only kick and snare, and pulls off some sick fills in the middle instrumental section), and a hilarious, slightly discordant ending. I can only imagine that the reason it didn't make it onto the album is because the keyboard figures behind the chorus sound similar to Journey's "Faithfully" (which I believe had just come out, even though this song was written earlier), but so freaking what? It's a freaking great song and I freaking love it to death. "It's Over" (previously unreleased) is about the same tempo and not quite as cool, but very good in its own way?I love the oscillating organ lines in the chorus breaks, and the instrumental hook is quite catchy and a logical addition to the piece as a whole. The long fade-out also helps bring the listener back down to earth, and partly because of that, I feel this would have been a more appropriate ending to the album than "Hearts."

So 90125 did its part in making Yes accessible to a new generation and (wouldn't you know it?) became their biggest seller ever, outselling the classic 70s albums even to this day. To my ears, if "Changes" had been replaced with "Make It Easy" (as it's about the same length) and "Hearts" replaced with "It's Over," this distinction would be more justified and it would easily be at least a 4-star album. However, as it was on first release in 1983, as I first discovered it as a budding Yes fan in 2003, and as I listen to it again in 2016, the whole is significantly underwhelming. This album would have been helped greatly by a bit less of an obvious "corporate-rock" feel, as well as a bit more consistency in the songwriting, and again, something about "Changes" just ruins the entire rest of the record for me. However, if that doesn't bother you too much, and you have a weakness for 80s production values or are otherwise a child of the 80s, check this album out anyway. Incidentally, I rate this exactly the same as Tales from Topographic Oceans; make of that what you will. 3 stars out of 5.

P.S. I just discovered, as I was finishing this review, that Tony Kaye actually played on a song called "Hold On" with the band Badfinger in 1981?two years before this album and the song that Yes chose as track 2. Do you see my point about how played out that title is?

cfergmusic1 | 3/5 |

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