Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Musical Retrospective: Everything But the Girl Part 1

I was introduced to Everything But the Girl back in 1988 by Kara Hoffman, PhD.   She gave me a cassette of Love Not Money and I played that thing to death. Then Idlewild came out and I was completely hooked.   Idlewild is still one of my all time favorite albums.  Over the next 11 years they would put out six more albums, then nothing.  Hard to believe they have not put out an album as Everything But the Girl in the 21st century.

From 1984 to 1999 they put out 11 albums.  Each one different from the one before.  If you listen to their first album Eden it has no resemblance to their last album Temperamental and yet they are both excellent albums in their own ways.  The one consistency through all of their albums is their songwriting.  Lyrically both are very interesting writers and together they made a classic combination of Tracey Thorn, singer, and Ben Watt, musician/arranger.  He sings off and on and she writes music as well as lyrics, but at the heart she's the singer and he's the musician/arranger.  Arranger here is very important as they tackle different sounds with each album and so each time he's reinventing their sound to work with Tracey's vocals.  Their pairing is quite magical to me.  Let's look at their albums.

In 1984 Everything But the Girl released two albums Eden and Everything But the Girl. Everything But the Girl was a US release and a reworking in some ways of Eden.  The first six songs on Everything But the Girl are also on Eden, but then the next six were all new.  The biggest difference is that with Everything But the Girl you start to see the direction they will go with their second album much more clearly.  Both albums were produced by Robin Millar who was also producing Sade at the time and so it may be no surprise that both bands early on were playing around with a mix of jazz, R&B and rock.

As we've discussed before, bands like Young Marble Giants really brought to the fore this idea of blending jazz and rock in the post punk era and by the early mid 80's this trend was catching on in a big way.  Still you could already see later in 1984 Everything But the Girl beginning to move away from that sound with their US release.

In 1985 Everything But the Girl released Love Not Money. They didn't leave their jazz inspirations completely behind, but the shift here was definitely to a more pop oriented sound. They also moved to taking on social issues and political issues with their lyrics. It's an interesting album a bit all over the place lyrically but all held together by the sound. It has a negative space sound and reminds me of the jangle pop being put out around this time by The Smiths.

In 1986 they went a completely different direction with Baby The Stars Shine Bright. The jangle pop sound is replaced by a full orchestra and all the songs have a very lush arrangement. This album highlights Thorn as a singer and both as songwriters in ways that they were not before. This album includes one of my all time favorite Everything But the Girl songs "Cross My Heart" and really shows what I like about Tracey Thorn as a lyricist.

I love the opening line to the song and with it you can see what I really like about Thorn as a lyricists. She is very to the point with her thoughts and in a way that is very relate-able to her audience.

Now and then
Do you wash your hands of me again?
Wish me anywhere but home
Drunk and on the end of your phone

From time to time
Do you guess what's really on my mind?
Guess that "How you keeping now?"
Means "Where are you sleeping now"

But of course it's not polite
To ask you where you spent last night
And if I did you might reply
That I have no right
And anyway I'm fine
Glad that you're no longer mine
If I should tell a lie
I'll cross my heart and hope to die

You'd be appalled
If you knew what I was doing
When you called
Yes, I can see I'm blundering
Always end up wondering

Will it ever be alright
To ask you where you spent last night
And can it be polite
The way we never write,
Of course I don't have the time,
And anyway I'm fine
If I should tell a lie
I'll cross my hear and hope to die

I hope we never die

It's a simple song and yet in it there are many emotions and many insights into the singer and where she is. Thorn is very good at writing these pieces, and often visits this theme of love and history and friendship. On their very first album she had a very smart look at lovers and how they deal with their pasts in the song "Fascination." We'll talk about that song a bit more soon.

In 1988 Tracey Thorn was now 26 and Ben Watt was the same.  For many artists the peak is at 24 and I've often thought that is usually because many musicians write from their emotions, and so at a certain age it gets harder to express themselves and reflect on the world around them.  At 24 a song like "Cross My Heart" feels youthful.  You can picture this your forlorn-ed lover sitting at home and drunk dialing her ex-lover.  At 26 this starts to feel a bit depressing and by 30 it would be totally depressing.  So as a writer it's important to be able to transition with your writing while still holding onto that passion you had at a younger age.

Idlewild was released in 1988 and  is probably the strongest set of songs the band ever wrote.  We have songs about mature romance, we have songs about having children, we have songs about careers and relationships being torn apart as people move in different directions with their lives.  It's a smart wonderful collection of songs and of course it's done with a completely new sound.  We have a very clean stripped down sound for this album that is the epitome of adult contemporary.  The original LP I had did not include the song "I Don't Want to Talk About It" and so I always skip that song as it doesn't seem to fit on here to me, but nevertheless it is a wonderful album.

Idlewild would greatly influence their next two albums 1990's The Language of Life and 1991's Worldwide. These are easily considered the bands two weakest albums though they still have good songs the energy of the two albums feels a bit low.

In 1992 the band would go on an acoustic tour and put out an album called Acoustic which was a collection of covers and acoustic versions of their songs. The highlight of this album is the live version of "Fascination." It's funny but at this point Everything But the Girl were 30 years old and this song carries a completely different vibe than it did when they first recorded it at the age of 22. For me in many ways it signals what was about to come, which was a complete reinvention of the band. This time on the road performing and rethinking their work had a big influence over what would come next which we'll cover in part 2.

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