Everything but the Girl
By Peter Margasak
The British duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt has been making highly formal pop music for more than 15 years now. While Thorn's distinctive voice, which recalls the gentle, soulful lilt of bossa nova heavy Astrud Gilberto, has remained a constant in the duo's work, Everything but the Girl's musical scapes have constantly shifted. In his unrepentant pursuit of pop nirvana, primary songwriter Watt has traipsed through wan approximations of country, bossa nova, jazz-pop, and MOR mouthwash as means to an end, but his travels have brought EBTG little more than marginal success on the charts. On recent efforts his writing and arranging have nicely coalesced to produce sumptuous, unified sound, but the end result typically has been too fey for rock fans and too complex and lyrically sardonic for adult contemporary stations.
The band's 1994 album, Amplified Heart, was appealingly dark and sultry, with lyrics that vividly illustrated a relationship on the brink of collapse, but Watt's dense arrangements smothered his delicate melodic confections in schlock. The record eventually attained gold status in the United States. But in February 1995 New York house producer Todd Terry's pounding house-driven remix of the song "Missing" accomplished for EBTG what countless singles from eight albums had failed to do: score the duo a bona fide international hit. The remix has remained on Billboard's Hot 100 chart for a record-breaking 49 consecutive weeks.
Although Watt had been interested in England's thriving club culture for several years, it seems that in particular the "Missing" remix and a subsequent collaboration with dance music innovator Massive Attack on its second album, Protection, precipitated EBTG's latest stylistic shift. The new album, Walking Wounded, finds Thorn and Watt tossing their high-gloss pop into the dance milieu--and finally delivering the goods.
Blending the smoky languor of Thorn's melodies with a variety of aggressive club styles--house, breakbeat, jungle--created a delicious tension previously unheard in EBTG's music. Light guitar strumming and unobtrusive synth washes can be heard, but the primary components are Thorn's voice and the complicated rhythm programs. The pair of tunes employing the drum 'n' bass patterns of jungle (the title track, a collaboration with leading British jungle group Spring Heel Jack that resurfaces as remixed by Omni Trio at the end of the CD; and "Before Today") pit Thorn's febrile phrasing against the upper-register cymbal patter and low-end bass rolling embedded in the rhythm programs.
Thorn's lyrics continue the theme of romantic near-desolation chronicled on Amplified Heart. Musings on a relationship that survives hardship but not without permanent scars and soft spots mirror the real-life experiences of the duo. Several years ago Watt struggled for his life after being diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, a rare autoimmune disorder, and during his lengthy, painful convalescence his relationship with Thorn went through the wringer.
"Wrong," the album's first single, is the closest descendant of the "Missing" remix--there's also a Todd Terry remix of "Wrong" on the album--but although it thickens the house rhythms and its melody is, if anything, more sophisticated than that of "Missing," it has stalled on the pop chart some 36 notches beneath its ubiquitous predecessor. It should be noted, however, that "Wrong" is currently number one on the dance chart, even though Thorn's masterful restraint goes against the ecstatic, gospel-inflected grain of most American-produced vocal house. Soul screaming usually seems like a perfect match for the frantic beats, but Thorn's cool croon has a gorgeous elasticity that allows it to wrap around and ooze through the barrage.
"Single" adds just a touch of mournful keyboards, plus elliptical samples from Tim Buckley's classic slice of cathartic soul-searching, "Song to the Siren," and from a record by British jazzer Stan Tracey, to flesh out Thorn's vocals and the lazy, vaguely trip-hop rhythm. But even the relative sunniness and fuller instrumentation of songs like "The Heart Remains a Child" and "Mirrorball," which hark back to EBTG's older material, still sounds dramatically spare by comparison. The elegantly lumbering "Flipside" is bolstered by the production of murky dance master Howie B, who framed Thorn's melody with snatches of guitar arpeggios, anonymous, fleeting crashes, and turntable scratching.
One indication that EBTG's current open-mindedness isn't so transitory is the promise of further experimentation in the group's two sold-out shows at the Vic this week. Thorn will sing and play guitar while Watt adds guitar, keyboards, and vocals. Rather than employ tapes or computer sequences for rhythm, however, drummer Martin Ditcham will trigger short loops in real time behind a modified drum kit. (When a traditional drummer flubs a beat, he can compensate right away with the next. If Ditcham screws up, he'll have to wait through a whole measure to patch it up, and meanwhile the phrase will threaten to run the rest of the group aground.) Bassist Danny Thompson, a founding member of the progressive British folk-rock group Pentangle and a frequent collaborator with Richard Thompson, will mix it up with a much more organic, deliberately traditional presence on upright bass.
It now seems unlikely that Walking Wounded will fulfill the commercial prophecy of "Missing." On the other hand, it's the group's finest and most daring work, and the artistic success of its bold stylistic fusions may stand as its own prophecy. If club music is to permeate the pop landscape with real staying power, EBTG has proffered a ripe paradigm for the invasion.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover, Everything but the Girl/Walking Wounded.