Whether you consider them innovative anti-rockists or middle-of-the-road fuddyduddies, it’s hard not to have a certain admiration for Everything but the Girl. As prime movers in the lite-jazz demi-movement that once included Swing Out Sister, Weekend, Sade and the Style Council (whose first album featured them on one song), Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn have made impressive brushes with chart success while attracting an exceedingly loyal following that has held fast through phases of bedsit musing, lounge jazz and even slick fern-bar pop.
Prehistory: Except for Thorn’s flashes of vocal strength (“He Got the Girl” is pretty impressive), the Marine Girls’ minimalist debut is a sorry attempt at writing and performing offbeat romantic pop. Between Thorn’s hapless guitar playing (supported by bits of percussion, Jane Fox’s marginally better bass work and occasional seagull sounds) and the quartet’s two inept singers — one of whom, Alice Fox, would go on to form Grab Grab the Haddock — Beach Party is a winceable soiree worth missing. Produced by Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants/Gist), Lazy Ways is a lot better, although still not a complete treat. Besides an overall improvement in songwriting, Thorn’s jazzy playing is vastly improved. With the first album’s most egregious tune-mangler gone, Jane Fox’s uneven singing has become the trio’s weakest link, and she dooms a good chunk of the album to the wrong side of competence. (Lazy Ways and Beach Party were later combined on a single cassette and CD.)
While a member of the Marine Girls, Thorn cut A Distant Shore, a brief album of nostalgic singer/songwriter modernism with little more than an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Her somewhat monotonous delivery hampers the effort, but a version of the Velvet Underground’s stylistically apropos “Femme Fatale” helps considerably.
For his pre-EBTG part, Watt had recorded on his own as well as in conjunction with Robert Wyatt. The five-song Summer Into Winter is a disappointing collaboration; the quietly colorful minimal arrangements of guitar (Watt) and piano (Wyatt) are undercut by Watt’s moany lead vocals. It’s too bad: Wyatt’s voice is much more enjoyable, and might have made something of these vague, atmospheric songs had he done more of the singing. On North Marine Drive, a wisp of airy melodicism with only a guest saxophonist joining Watt, the percussionless tracks still manage nicely syncopated, quasi-Latin rhythms; Watt’s fine guitar playing and sincerely artless singing make it a quiet pleasure. (One CD contains both records.)
Named after a shop in Hull, Everything but the Girl debuted in January 1982 with a three-song British single that included Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” The duo’s first album, Eden, is a charming, fragile record delicately filled with winsome songs that drift in and out of neo-jazz-pop stylings but are never less than appealing and attractive. Showing enormous growth as a vocalist, Thorn makes the songs memorable even when the music is too low-key to stand out on its own. With harmonies that recall such wonders of the ’60s as the Association, understated pop creations prove Everything but the Girl to be an exceptional, unconventional band.
Everything but the Girl, the American version of Eden, is a drastically different record, with six substitutions. (The entire second side of the US release is new.) The overall feel of the two albums is similar, but fans should seek out both versions, as there’s hardly a dud among the 18 selections.
Watt tabled his more overtly jazzy riffs for Love Not Money, but the breezy ambience remained intact. The album leads off with the alluring “When All’s Well” and continues with further literate considerations of growing up and getting along, including “Ugly Little Dreams,” which is dedicated to actress Frances Farmer. The US edition adds “Heaven Help Me” and a version of Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid.” Some of the tracks leave the impression that, had Thorn been born a few years earlier, she could’ve given Petula Clark a run for her money as swinging London’s fave songbird.
The Angel EP features one affecting song from Love Not Money, a version of “Easy as Sin” sung by Watt (instead of Thorn, as it appears on the first US LP), plus two non-album tracks that rank among the duo’s finest. “Pigeons in the Attic Room” and “Charmless Callous Ways” sound like demos, Thorn alone with guitar and piano respectively, singing at her most emotionally direct.
The cover of Baby, the Stars Shine Bright notes that it was “arranged for orchestra by Ben Watt.” Indeed, other than his guitar playing, a prominent rhythm section and a pianist/organist, the musical backing consists of strings, horns and a choir. Fortunately, Thorn’s rich voice and the pair’s soaringly melodic songs carry it off without losing momentum. The music is neither sappy nor dull; the orchestra’s role is supportive without shirking center stage. Like classic Dionne Warwick sides, rock’n’roll energy and excitement is channeled into subtle sophistication that brings the music to life in vivid colors. Pointedly topical lyrics on “Sugar Finney” (for Marilyn Monroe) and “Little Hitler” don’t undercut the songs’ delicate beauty; other standouts are “Don’t Leave Me Behind,” “Fighting Talk” and “Cross My Heart.”
The Come on Home EP features two versions of a sweeping ballad from Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, a classic C&W weeper by Thorn called “Draining the Bar” and an ill-advised stab at “I Fall to Pieces.” Don’t Leave Me Behind joins another song from the same LP with B-side covers of Jimmy Webb’s “Where’s the Playground, Susie” (sung by Watt) and Bacharach’s “Alfie” (sung by Thorn).
Fortunately, the orchestral experiment proved short- lived: for Idlewild, the couple employed a bassist and a sensitive, pared-down horn section that served to underscore the album’s pervasive melancholy. Thorn’s lyrics have never been this introspective or revealing; the plainly articulated longings and autobiographical expositions resonate through “Oxford Street,” “Blue Moon Rose,” “Apron Strings” and “Shadow on a Harvest Moon” like a rainy day. With understated, superficially mild-on-arrival music, this is an achingly sad record, filled with quiet grief and deep disappointments, as engrossing as watching waves crash against a storm-tossed beach. (The British version includes a devastating cover of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” which became the duo’s biggest UK hit to date — but was left off the US release.)
These Early Days includes a remix of one bittersweet song from Idlewild and adds Watt’s “Dyed in the Grain,” Thorn’s “Another Day, Another Dollar” and country singer Paul Overstreet’s “No Place Like Home.”
The Language of Life is a trickier read. On one hand, it’s a virtually complete surrender to the pressures of the commercial market, as evidenced by the degree to which the duo turns the reins over to producer Tommy LiPuma (perhaps best known for his work with George Benson, but also Miles Davis). But the sound is also a natural evolution of the duo’s prior moves towards a classic (i.e., pre-rock) pop presentation. Granted, some of the songs would have sounded more sincere without the studio glitz and passionless contempo-jazz session players, but Thorn’s “Meet Me in the Morning” and Watt’s “The Road” (featuring saxman Stan Getz, whose bossa nova work was an early influence on the duo) are keepers that stand up with the pair’s best. And the cover of Womack and Womack’s “Take Me” hints at what they’re aiming for: sophisticated, romantic adult pop.
EBTG’s ever-changing moods see them swing the pendulum back to more intimate (though still glossy) environs for Worldwide. Watt sculpts the sound a bit more authoritatively than he has in the past, emphasizing salable-sounding electronic keyboards on songs like “Old Friends” and “Talk to Me Like the Sea” (which sees him turn in a surprisingly effective vocal performance). Thorn again shines as both singer and lyricist, as borne out by “Understanding” and “British Summertime,” either of which could elicit a sigh from the hardest of hearts. The Driving EP offers a “radio edit” of the album’s overproduced single plus the umpteenth cover of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train,” with Watt handling the lead vocals.
For those who’d grown edgy about Everything but the Girl’s continuing infatuation with studio gew-gaws, Acoustic (a full-length expansion of the surprisingly successful covers EP, which contains Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange,” Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Tougher Than the Rest” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”) was the perfect tonic. In the sparest of settings, Watt and Thorn essay a handful of covers and reprise some of their best, most tender material. It’s a strikingly well-considered move, one that not only presages the wealth of subsequent “unplugged” sets, but far outstrips most in terms of execution. Songs like The Language of Life‘s “Driving” and a reworking of Worldwide‘s “One Place” aren’t merely quieter replicas but exhaustively refashioned works in their own right. Thorn benefits most from the climate, slipping easily into a sensuous simmer on the live “Apron Strings,” but Watt gets into the spirit as well, eking some serious emotion out of his rendition of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train.”
Watt was hospitalized for three months in mid-’92, suffering from a rare auto-immune system disease. He recovered the following year and the group continued, recording two new songs with producer Phil Ramone for the British-only greatest-hits collection.
More than two years elapsed between Acoustic and Amplified Heart, yet the hushed timbres and largely downcast moods remain the same. Deeply confessional in tone, the songs almost uniformly address lost loves with the desperate directness of diary entries: against gentle, slowly unfolding backing, Thorn pours out what sound like stream-of-consciousness pleas alternately written on her own (the twice-shy “Troubled Mind”) and by Watt (the achingly solitary “Rollercoaster”). Instrumentally, Watt turns back to accentuating his deft, Joe Pass-derived guitar playing (particularly effective on the uncharacteristically cloudless “We Walk the Same Line”) and crafting vintage-soul arrangements (the Philly- styled “Missing”). There may be better music for crying in your beer, but as far as weeping into your martini, there’s no topping Everything but the Girl.
In 1994, Thorn guested on Massive Attack’s Protection; she and Watt used the experience to springboard their group into a new creative era. Setting aside all past commitments to guitar, jazz-pop and orchestration, Walking Wounded drops Everything but the Girl gently into the programmed electronic slipstream of ultra-modern dance idioms: “Before Today” is a most delicate jungle expedition, while the title track (presented in two mixes) walks a trip-hop line around jungle’s skittery rhythms. A strange development, but done with the band’s impeccable good taste and sonic sophistication.