A GUEST POSTING FROM ECHORICH
Much has been written around these parts recently on the music of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, better known and cherished as Everything But The Girl. University students already on their own paths to careers in music, once they met, a common direction of love and music opened up to them. Almost 35 or so years later their musical canon has the ability to move listeners emotionally and physically.
Ben and Tracey’s musical journey was one of exploration of many forms and styles. From Cafe Jazz (or the horrid tag of Jazz/Pop) to Indie Jangle…from heartfelt orchestrated Country and Sixties Pop to a sophisticated mix of Smooth Jazz and Soulful Balladry and eventually a successful foray into the world of House music. All through those changes in sound and style, they managed to maintain their integrity as artists and provide some very, very memorable music.
Here is an ICA which explores in 10 songs the essence of what it was to be Everything But The Girl from their debut Eden/eponymous titled in the USA album to their final long player Tempermental. It is by no means definitive. It does reflect a certain amount of personal preference in places, and I will leave the ‘elephant in the room’ off the track list only because it is a song that I believes deserves its one discussion – one which I will address at the end.
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL – AN ICA OF LOVE AND MUSIC
1. Laugh You Out The House – from EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL (US release)/B-side of EACH AND EVERYONE – This was my entry song into the world of Everything But The Girl. It is 1:50 of jangling pop with a breezy approach that just pulls you right into the sunny warm world of their music. Take a moment to listen to the lyrics and you will hear the angst and amorous confusion of young adults. That it was left for a b-side everywhere outside the USA show’s how deep their songwriting was at this early stage.
2. Fascination – from EDEN – From the moment I heard Fascination, I was devastated by it’s beauty and it has remained one of my 10 favorites songs. Ben’s lone acoustic guitar and Tracey’s open/echoey vocals command your attention and caress the words and emotion of the song. As other instruments slowly enter the song, a second guitar, bass and finally sax, the song’s emotions also build to a beautifully unresolved end.
3. Trouble And Strife – from LOVE NOT MONEY – With a sense of confidence from their debut, EBTG set about making a sophomore album on their own terms. They put together a more stable band with ex-Young Marble Giant bassist Phil Moxham and ex Mo-Dette June Miles Kingston on drums. Love Not Money is a an album filled with great music – a masterful turn on The Pretenders’ Kid, the universally (well in our universe) loved When All’s Well and a beautiful cautionary ballad dedicated to tragic actress Frances Farmer – Ugly Little Dreams.
Trouble And Strife really shows off the strengths of EBTG as a band. It is one of the more aggressive tracks on Love Not Money, opening with a powerful guitar riff and some very confident vocals from Tracey. The song deals with the struggles and hardships of being a woman and looking back on what limitations a mans world provides. Personal politics would be a theme that would run through their music until the end.
4. Cross My Heart – from BABY THE STARS SHINE BRIGHT – For their third album, EBTG said farewell to their association with Robin Millar and Mike Pela on production and decamped to the studio with Mike Hedges but lost the band in favor of a more orchestrated sound.
The album reflects their growing interest in country music songwriting and showcasing the lyrics and emotions of the genre with the Sixties’ many walls of sound from Dusty to Phil. You’ll even here the ghosts of Patsy Cline and Jimmy Webb in the songs on BTSSB. But the song I feel captures everything Ben and Tracey set to do on the album is Cross My Heart. It opens with a spacious Dusty/Sandi vocal and builds into a giant, sweeping orchestral masterpiece. Tracey is mic’d in the tradition of those 60’s pop standards and it gives magnifies the singular beauty of her voice. Cross My Heart touches on such allowed ground as a song like I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore from Dusty In Memphis – and maybe that album is the only other one I know that really captures an similar spirit.
5. Tears All Over Town – from IDLEWILD – The follow up to Baby The Stars Shine Bright was a more conventional pop album for EBTG. But there were lessons learned to this point that they brought to the album. This was the first time they attempted to produce themselves – with the help of masterful engineer Jerry Boys – and synths made a pronounced appearance replacing much of the band feel of their previous work. In fact there is no drummer credit anywhere to be found on the album.
There is a more intimate feel to many of the tracks, but not at the expense of quality or craft. Tears All Over Town reflects this new maturity best in my mind. Ben and Tracey enjoy some vocal interplay and the song hangs on a simple percussion pattern with some synth and guitar embellishment. It avoids all the obvious glossy pop devices that were everywhere in the middle 80s and still manages to be a shiny, fresh jazzy pop confection.
6. Driving – from LANGUAGE OF LIFE – There is something natural about EBTG heading into the studio for their next album with a proper Jazz producer – Tommy LiPuma – and luminaries such as Stan Getz, Joe Sample and Michael Breaker to make a real Jazz record. Tracey has called Language of Life a “fully realized…modern American soul-pop record, but it is also their most difficult album to put your finger on. It is an album that divides fans and critics and has lots of highs and lows. One thing I will admit is that it is missing its “edge.”
EBTG went from mature to adult between Idlewild and Language Of Life and in the process lost a good deal of the emotion that charged their best songs. The best example the album has to offer as an example of how a choice to create sublime pop lost that edge is in the album opener and minor U.S. radio hit Driving. I really love this song – it is a pop gem, but on first hearing I was struck by how much of a straightforward love song it was. No irony, no twist and nothing left unresolved.
7. Boxing and Pop Music – from WORLDWIDE – After the precision of Language of Life, EBTG took a trip back toward the a more intimate, reflective sound and subject matter for Worldwide. With a good deal of touring under their belt- I was able to see them 4 times in 3 years prior to Worldwide, Tracey and Ben wrote songs that reflected where their career and relationship had taken them. Worldwide certainly isn’t an immediate album, it has no obvious single in my mind, but it shows off the power of their songs.
To this point, none of the songs on this ICA featured Ben Watt in a role as lead singer. There are quite a number of songs which feature Ben that are among my very favorites by the band and I will address this over at my place in a day or two. Ben handles the verses on Boxing And Pop Music and Tracey joins in about midway through the song. But it’s the beauty of Ben’s reflective lyrics that make this song such a masterful piece of pop. He paint’s a picture filled with memories that evoke emotions of love, happiness, sorrow and regret and ultimately contentment. As the song fades and you sit taking it in, a final reprise, separately titled Feel Alright, begins to wash over you to help all those emotions really soak in and end the album.
Let’s pause here and let life “happen” to Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn. They knew they needed a break from the grind of music after Worldwide. Much has been made of the prior two albums seeming to exhaust their musical clarity – I don’t subscribe to this opinion. Most notably, Ben was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, an auto-immune disease that attacks breathing and digestion in increasingly life-threatening stages. This was their new focus. He had a very lucky outcome from the disease and went into remission and recovery but with permanent effects to his body and lifelong treatment. For the better part of 2 years this was reality for Ben and Tracey and Everything But The Girl would have to wait. Before his illness, 2 EP’s would make an appearance in ’92 and ’93, in the UK. They were wonderful additions to my collection, but neither gave any indication that more music would follow. But then….
8. Two Star – from AMPLIFIED HEART – Somehow, even with a period of silence of 4 years, it felt like Everything But The Girl was a very current part of my musical fandom in the early 90’s. They were that much of a force for me that all of their catalog managed to stay current for me and always on the turntable or in the cd player. When word came that there was a new album ready for release, I remember being VERY excited. I managed to get a promo cd, meant to reintroduce the band with a few songs and interview clips with Ben and Tracey, was made available by their US label Atlantic and I was just bowled over by the two new songs included.
When the album was released and I played it over and over, I kept coming back to one song that seemed to recapture all of the beauty and fragility I heard the first time I heard Fascination on Eden. Two Star, which I would learn is a term for low rated leaded petrol – what Americans used to know as Regular Gasoline back in the days before emissions controls, just captured my ear and seemed to bring everything full circle. Back was the gentle disquiet of the lyrics, written here by Ben, with Tracey reflecting on her own disappointing lot as she judges a friend’s life choices. It’s a song that makes you want to give the singer a hug and at the same time be very self reflective. Ben’s tender arrangement with Harry Robinson, Kate St. John’s Cor Anglais and Danny Thompson’s double bass shine, framing Tracey’s performance perfectly. It is still one of those songs that I can put on repeat while driving and listen to over and over.
9. Walking Wounded – from WALKING WOUNDED – After the release of Amplified Heart something momentous happened – Missing – the second single was remixed by House Master Todd Terry and Everything But The Girl’s world would change again. This was no fluke, Ben and Tracey had their ear to the ground and had already worked with Massive Attack on Protection, Better Things and Hunter Gets Captured By The Game for Batman Forever. Their next album would show just how intent they were. Their brand of pop songwriting would sit side by side with, as well as inform, forays into Drum And Bass, Trip Hop, House and Electronica on the album.
On such a strong and varied album, the title track stood out for me as the biggest gamble and a great payoff. Walking Wounded is gorgeously orchestrated with the spot on programming of John Coxon and Ashley Wales (Spring Heeled Jack). Tracey loses none of her edgy, sometimes witheringly direct, delivery and the song seems to bounce and dance around her. Ben and Tracey harnessed DnB and shaped it to fit their needs. It’s just a perfect modern electronic song.
10. Lullaby Of Clubland – from TEMPERMENTAL – Tracey and Ben’s next album would turn out to be Everything But The Girl’s final album. It took a step or two deeper into Dance and Electronica, while never abandoning the lyrical and musical history of the band. It is full of dance floor ready tracks with a difference – the difference being a lyrical level that remains pretty much unmatched. Subjects ranging from being attacked on the street and the withering of English Cities to the solitary and sadder side of nightlife/club life. Many of the songs have a wonderful sparse singer/songwriter feel to them bathed in deep and contemporary house sounds.
The track that spoke most to me was Lullaby of Clubland and Ben’s lyrics of empty routine clubbing routine as a metaphor for modern life, rather than a panacea for a boring life. The song’s reliance of repetition drives home the futility expressed in the lyrics.
There are literally another four volumes I could come up for and Everything But The Girl ICA and that is a testament to the depth of their work and the risks, both successful and unsuccessful, that they took. I hope this goes some way to give some insight into their music.
YES, MISSING WAS MISSING….
My reason for not including Missing is mostly because of what that amazing song became rather than what it represents on parent album Amplified Heart. Amplified Heart is seen by many, and I include myself, as a return to form for Everything But The Girl, an album that celebrates the amazing songwriting and music of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn. It is absolutely all of that.
But by the time of its release, Ben and Tracey were beginning to move on, energized by House and Electronic music and recent collaborations with Massive Attack, it was a dynamic decision to take Missing, a track that already had a funky groove underpinning it’s love song foundation. It was already a hypnotic groove on the album, but as a single Ben and Tracey went for broke…Missing is a highlight of the album and was the song that allowed EBTG to take a new and exciting path. Overplayed in the past 22 years, sure, but that doesn’t diminish it’s greatness… Click here
The Missing Remix EP provided a Deep House expansion, a Progressive 2 am stormer, a tech/trance revisioning and an Eastern flavored trip-hop excursion.
Todd Terry laid down the Four to the Floor beat while staying true to the melody and arrangement of the song. His addition of keyboard stabs gave dimension to the beat and he very smartly kept the synth lines of the original to weave through his tougher beat. For me it is one of the best House remixes EVER. Click here
Chris And James took Missing to the land of the extended build up with a remix that kept the bones of the original track and added an arrangement full of drama. Again, the remixers knew they were working with a gem of a song and did everything they could to preserve it’s essence while still managing to bring an exciting dance floor edge. Multiple build ups, tribal drum patterns and judicious cut ups of Tracey’s vocals create some real wow moments in the remix. Click here.
I find myself waffling at times between the Todd Terry House mix and what Chris And James did.
For something entirely different we turn to Ultramarines more downtempo/tech/trance reimagining of Missing. A good deal of the original album version fits in well here and is preserved. Multiple percussion patterns are the highlight here, laying down a new bed for Tracey’s vocals to rise up from. There’s even a bit of a Laurie Anderson homage in the chorus as a snippet of Tracey’s voice is used as a counter beat, much like Anderson’s voice in O Superman, yet more subtle. Click here
Finally, Little Joey offers a Trip Hop remix that is like a nice glass of Port after a delicious and filling meal. It goes down smooth. Tracey’s voice get modified and reversed giving the song an Eastern feel. Interestingly, this is the only mix that Tracey seems to to have laid down an alternative vocal for. She seems game to purse this remake/remodel remix and it pays off because it flows so much more naturally than a cut and paste remix. Click here