Pure Pop For Now People

New LPs from Everything But The Girl and Tricky use club music as means to very different end

           Coming of musical age in the early '80s, as failing punk revolutionaries led pub sing-alongs like "Rock The Casbah," it makes sense that Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl would look for inspiration in something--anything--besides rock & roll. Their debut single featured a lovely and totally unironic reading of Cole Porter's "Night & Day." Their first LP, the U.K.-only release Eden, was filled with Bacharach/David-styled pop and smoky jazz sidetrips. It was mood music, to be sure, but not quite easy listening. Their hushed tales of heartbreak could be as raw and affecting as those of any post-punk wailer. And they were subversive precisely for the way they rejected punk asceticism to embrace that voluptuous old devil, beauty.

           Of course, this strategy earned Everything But The Girl instant suspicion from rock fans, a suspicion no doubt increased by their growing audience among the wine bar set, which began swelling with their lite jazz mini-hit "Driving" in 1990. Given their workaday image and their roots in the British indie scene, you might even guess they're a little self-conscious about it all. At least that's the impression I got when they opened their last show here with a shimmering and faithful cover of Sonic Youth's "Cotton Crown." ("Does anyone know who wrote that song?" Ben Watt asked the J. Crewish audience in the posh Fitzgerald Theatre; two people--both rock writers, I think--responded.)

           The other impression I got is something I knew all along: That Thorn and Watt listen hard. That's how they found the lush melodicism inside the burry "Cotton Crown." It's also how they channel the oft-times elusive musicality of jungle, drum & bass, and other modern electronic dance styles into Walking Wounded (Atlantic), one of the group's best records, and definitely the purest pop album yet to grow out of current Anglo-American club sounds.

           If it weren't so good, it would be easy to dismiss the new record as an obvious move to cash in on the success of Todd Terry's soulful house remix of EBTG's "Missing," which topped pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic last year, and Thorn's similarly clubby collaborations with Bristol's Massive Attack. But while the group has never been ashamed of its populist aspirations (it's a British thing, you know), it's never skimped on craft in an effort to gain an audience. Given the prodigious talents of Ben Watt, it hasn't had to. From his beginnings as a fragile but sophisticated folkie, he penned charts for a full horn section on EBTG's debut, and on the third record, had moved on to vocal and orchestral arrangements and production in the vein of Owen Bradley and Nelson Riddle. Although two of Walking Wounded's nine compositions are collaborations with U.K. clubland stars (Spring Heel Jack and the omnipresent Howie B.), the rest are all programmed and produced by Watt.

           No doubt he had some good tutors in the Massive Attack posse. And interviews suggest his ongoing battle with Churg-Strauss Syndrome, a rare immune disorder, has added a new intensity to his work regimen. But his understanding of clubland's rhythmic architectures is still incredibly deep for a newcomer and non-DJ. Even Thorn's silky, conversational vocals work like rhythms here; the result is soul music that's as complex as it is dramatic, with verse structures that mutate like grooves under the hand of a good breakbeat DJ.

           The album's cinematic title track, for example, shuttles between the warm swath of string synths (think Altman's yellow opium haze in McCabe and Mrs. Miller) and chilly techno beats (think of the blue night streets of Scorsese's Taxi Driver) as the singer veers from memory to what almost seems a stalker's obsession. Incanting "Now I'm never gonna let you go" over abstract jungle rhythms, you can't be sure if she's speaking to the lover in her arms or in her memory, whether it's a promise, a threat, or a lament.

           As psychodramas go, it's pretty catchy. So is "Wrong," a confessional uttered over rubbery house beats whose lover/narrator circles in through layers of vagueness until arriving at the specifics of her betrayal. When Thorn sings the line "I wanted to know what he was like," the beats suddenly drop out, leaving that little pronoun space to echo and expand until it fills up the room with its doom, just as little pronouns can sometimes do. It's language as special effect, with beats making a narrative thread.

           As on their previous albums, EBTG are still making songs that cut to the emotional bone, and still doing it without rock bombast. On Walking Wounded, they both master the mechanics of new club music and, by investing it with an unprecedented intimacy, come up with something that feels genuinely new.

           Which is not unlike what Tricky is doing on something called Nearly God (Durban Poison/Island U.K.), a collaboration with the likes of Björk, Neneh Cherry, Martine/Martina, Alison Moyet (ex-Yaz), Terry Hall (ex-Specials) and others that is a Tricky album in everything but name. Out for a couple of months now as a British import (an American release is slated for later this summer), the record is built up of loops, electronic beats and samples like Walking Wounded, and it too looks unflinchingly at various relationship hells. In addition, both artists poke at stardom's rank ironies: As the title of Walking Wounded plays off the cover shot of Watt and Thorn cradled in the back of a limousine, the sickly but beautiful Watt lost in the folds of his trendy warmup suit, so does the title of Nearly God (probably a direct quote from some fevered critic writing about Tricky and his last record) play off its cover photo, a blurry figure in pajamas crawling toward a door illuminated with an electric sign: HEAVEN.

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