Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Everything but the Guy

The great mystery of my weekend was how Tracey Thorn managed to release a CD that I didn't find out about until a month later.

Don’t know Tracey? Maybe you’ve heard of Everything but the Girl (“EBTG” for short), the duo of which she's half; Ben Watt, the other 50%, is also Tracey’s husband. Their biggest hit, Missing (“And I miss you, like the deserts miss the rain”), was a massive club track back in the mid-‘90s[1]. If you still don’t know who they are, you’ve been denied one of the great singer/songwriter duos of the past 25 years. Since first discovering “The Language of Life” -- their 1990 album which yielded the minor VH-1 hit, Driving -- EBTG became my "getting-in-touch-with-my-feminine-side" drug of choice. It's been my experience that the band remains largely unknown in the U.S., which, over the years, has allowed me to turn people on to them right and left.

EBTG are the smoothest rollercoaster you'll ever ride, yet you never quite know which loop they’ll spin you around next. They’ve deceptively continued to adapt their style and sound to flow with the times, while always remaining true to an emotionally resonant core. How two people who’ve been together for so long can evoke such precise heartbreak remains another great mystery. 1994’s “Amplified Heart” -- arguably the jewel in the EBTG crown -- is so ideally crafted that surrendering to its dagger-through-the-heart charms is the best musical substitute for a real breakup. I once heard it compared to Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”, which is apt, although it lacks Buckingham’s anger. Nobody can make breakup and loss sound as wistfully sweet as EBTG. Though the two albums couldn’t sound less alike, “Amplified Heart” deserves a pop iconic “Rumours”-like status it’ll probably never attain.

Which brings me to “Out of the Woods”, Thorn’s first solo recording since 1982. I don’t mean to either diminish Watt or glamorize Thorn in relation to the partnership -- which has always seemed very equal -- but if you’re looking for that EBTG sound, “Out of the Woods” isn’t to be missed simply because the brand name isn’t emblazoned across the cover. (It’d be like passing on a Lindsey Buckingham effort because it doesn’t say Fleetwood Mac.) Do I dare name “Woods” the best EBTG record since “Amplified Heart”? I dare, and it is. A big part of this is simply because Thorn’s vocals have always dominated EBTG’s output. While the pair pretty much split the songwriting duties down the middle, Ben rarely sings lead vocals (which is a bit of shame, because he’s got a haunting voice of which I’m quite fond). Thorn’s unique vocals are so central to EBTG, that even when she lends her talents to a band like Massive Attack, the result still sounds like EBTG.

I’ve listened to “Out of the Woods” non-stop over the past four days. It’s in turns sweet, heartrending, uplifting, flirtatious, philosophical and, of course, rhythmically groovy. Thorn never shies away from dropping English colloquialisms and words into her lyrics (another EBTG staple) -- for example on the song A-Z, she pronounces "Z" as "Zed". Some of the tunes are perfect for a Sunday afternoon and others will complement your Saturday night. It’s basically everything one could want or expect from an EBTG album minus Ben Watt -- although an argument could be made that Watt’s presence hovers above the proceedings like a phantom of inspiration. When two people are as seemingly joined at the hip and heart -- both professionally and personally -- as Thorn and Watt have been for the past 25 years, it’s impossible to believe his influence wouldn’t make its way onto her record in some fashion.

By the time I found Everything but the Girl back in ‘90, the career they’d already had in their native England allowed me to dive into everything I’d missed (1986’s “Baby the Stars Shine Bright” is another gem) and I followed them diligently from then on. Their last full album was in 1999 (“Temperamental”), and as the years kept passing, I’d pretty much given up hope for a new one -- yet EBTG’s output was so rich and rewarding for so long that it didn’t matter. They’re artists who do it when the time feels right, not on some record company’s schedule. EBTG need never make another album as what they’ve already amassed is worth the discographies of 10 other bands.

I was elated to discover Tracey decided to share some new work with the public and before even hearing it I knew I’d fall in love with her all over again. “Out of the Woods” is like a late Christmas gift from a friend you haven’t seen in years, showing up in the mailbox when you’re least expecting it. Maybe I won’t get another gift for quite some time, but I’ll treasure this one for the meaningful rarity it is.

Check out the video for the new single, It's All True. One never knows quite what to expect from an EBTG video, and solo Tracey is no different. It's artsy and strange and I don't how it relates to the tune, but EBTG's videos rarely offer visual interpretations that corrupt the music. In 2004 they released the DVD video collection "Like the Deserts Miss the Rain", which spans their entire career and introduced me to their outstanding cover of Paul Simon's The Only Living Boy in New York.

[1] My kid just informed me that Missing is included on Dance Dance Revolution. Perhaps that's an even greater legacy than being compared to Fleetwood Mac?