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.
But where EBTG's music is ultimately willing to head out to the dancehall and make the best of things in spite of its sorrows, the music on Nearly God is deeply claustrophobic, redolent of the sort of mounting paranoia that I recall from weekends of round-the-clock pot smoking back in the day. What Tricky's up to is anyone's guess--though there are some clues here, and the sound of someone hitting on a spliff that opens the record is just one of them. The opening cover of Siouxsie and the Banshees' obscure "Tattoo" is one of the most sonically off-putting lead tracks I've heard on a pop record since Trout Mask Replica's "Frownland," though in a different way. Here, dissonant swarms of strings (George Crumb maybe?) circle around a few bass notes suggesting melody, with erratically plodding beats and a sour, mocking horn riff dropped in at intervals. "When you're sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor," Tricky mumbles almost incomprehensibly, "There's something you can't control/you sit there watching the door."
Yeah, it's a song about a dysfunctional relationship, about love and intimacy as nightmares of disempowerment. But things get muddier on the next track, "Poems," which features vocals by regular Tricky sidekick Martine (here Martina Topley Bird) and Terry Hall (who sounds so startlingly good you wonder what else he's been up to lately). As near as I can tell, it's a song about a lover's betrayal on one hand, and artistic vampirism on the other (the latter being something that Tricky--who after his first record was suddenly fielding calls from worldwide superstars and record company honchos wanting his production talents--no doubt understands). As he slurs on his verse: "I can vibe to anything/So I have to hide from everything/Everybody wants a piece of me." I don't think anyone else could make this sort of sentiment stick--Jeez, y'know, life is tough all over--but with its scary, stumbling beats and a delicate little acoustic guitar line that slithers through the song's dark scrim like a golden thread of hope, "Poems" makes its emotional point indelible.
There are some upbeat moments on the record, but fewer than Tricky's debut Maxinquaye. Here they come from strong women vocalists like Neneh Cherry and Alison Moyet--the latter who belts out soul-mama verses about personal transformation on "Make a Change." Indeed, there's a strange, self-helpy vibe lurking around the edges of some songs on Nearly God. On "I Be The Prophet," Tricky and Martine take turns singing "I need to meditate." On "Yoga," Tricky recites "a tisket a tasket/I'm feeling fantastic" over and over like a mantra, while Björk (who, incidentally, can sound a lot like a young Ella Fitzgerald at times) simultaneously croons "Don't fuck with me/ don't hold me down/ I'm jumpy."
These bursts of positive energy and will power don't add up to much, but they give the record its peculiar tension. If looping and repetition in music can, in a spiritual sense, represent the sound of the sweet eternal, Tricky understands it can also represent, in a literal sense, the sound of stasis and death. Nearly God is full of songs that can't break out of their own stupor, just as their characters remain stuck in bad relationships and other habits. You keep listening, wanting these strange tunes to resolve themselves--find a major chord, break out of their dissonance and arrhythmia. But they never do. And that is what makes them so haunting.