Sunday, February 7, 2021

More on The Yes Album

In early 1969, Yes was a fast-rising band on the London scene, most notably opening for Cream at their final concerts. Yet, despite the stellar lineup - Squire, Anderson, Bruford, McKay and Banks - the band was oddly conventional. Its debut, simply titled Yesincluded covers of the Byrds' "I See You" and the Beatles' "Every Little Thing." The former featuring Bruford whipping up a surprisingly swingin' groove over Banks' extended, jazzy solo; interesting but not what you'd call forward-thinking. The vocal harmonies, while technically adept, bring to mind the Fifth Dimension. "Every Little Thing," which interpolates the famous riff from "Day Tripper," begins as a hard-charging instrumental, driven by Squire's thundering bass and Bruford's barrage of phased percussion. The vocals don't kick in until the two-minute mark, and once they do, the arrangement stops and starts, lurching forward at speed, then halting, then resuming, a metaphor for the album as a whole. Yes was a hint of things to come, but it was hardly the debut offered by contemporaries King Crimson and Pink Floyd, or Tomorrow, for that matter.
Time And A Word was a more problematic follow-up, a document of a fledgling band attempting to expand its sonic purview while simultaneously figuring out exactly where they fit in the wide-open rock music landscape. Yes wasn't big enough or enigmatic enough to create a sophomore jinx for Time and a Word, but despite its soaring orchestral arrangements, the album is lackluster and muddy. What the LP did provide was a sense that Anderson would take the lead; indeed, Jon's use of elaborate instrumentation on nearly every track was a bone of contention for Peter Banks, and ultimately the guitarist was fired before the album's release (making way for Steve Howe).  Oddly, the sessions' best track, a prog cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "America," was left off the release.

When we note the core of a band's career, a clear selectivity often rears its head. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's canon, for me at least, starts with the phenomenal debut and ends with Works, Vol. 1, dismissing the leftovers from Vol. 2 and the horrid Love Beach. For Gentle Giant, it begins with the eponymous 1st LP and ends with Freehand before the band fell into corporate rage. At times, though, it's more subjective: leave off The Final Cut but accept A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell (and where does The Endless River fit in)? But, whether we're talking Pink Floyd or Joni Mitchell, the subjective canon nearly always includes an artist's debut; not the case for Yes.

For me, as it does for most, the Yes canon begins with The Yes Album (and ends early on with Going For the One). It's Howe’s presence, coupled with a musical maturation gained from the road, that pushes the tracks on TYE to new heights, though some of the credit goes to new producer, Eddie Offord who replaced Tony Colt. Offord’s production is vastly more adventuresome, with a better ear for framing the diverse integrated styles into a whole.  In turn, the band stretches out, going places it hadn't before. 

The Yes Album revolves around four extended tracks, which show off the band's more confident and focused songwriting and grasped a baroque sensibility that incorporated elegant, melodic passages while balancing shifting tempos and complex time signatures. "Starship Trooper," in particular, embodied these strengths in.  An aggressive opening riff overlaps a soaring Anderson melody that melds seamlessly into acoustic bluegrass. The Yes Album's radio mainstay is of course "Your Move/I've Seen All Good People."  The former a breezy pop song, the later an all-out boogie jam.  

The down low: It's The Yes Album's arrangement, time changes, beautiful melodies flitting about a single chord, its counterpoint and harmony, that accentuate this ethereal soundscape. The pinnacle Wakeman, White years lie ahead, but for pure innovation, The Yes Album was the band's zenith.