Sharps & flats

Everything But the Girl marry the lonely pop romance of Frank Sinatra to the dance-floor sounds of house and drum 'n' bass.

Published September 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The essence of romantic pop is so basic that if you were to sum it up in a haiku the first line would be:

city late at night

Everything But the Girl are among the greatest current practitioners of romantic pop. When Tracey Thorn
sings, "I walk the city late at night" on the duo's new album,
"Temperamental," it's as authentic an image of the
genre as the cover of "In the Wee Small Hours," the
blue-green painting of Sinatra idling under a 3 a.m.
street lamp because anywhere is better than going
home alone.

Self-pity is at the heart of romantic pop's great theme -- the search for love and the heartbreak of its aftermath -- and an undeniable part of its appeal. Assemble the right ingredients: Scotch (or bourbon); cigarettes (optional); low lighting; the right music ("No One Cares" or "Dusty in Memphis," "A Night in Manhattan With Lee Wiley" or "Al Green's Greatest Hits"). Blend. You've got the makings for a luxuriant wallow in romantic moroseness. Serves one.

That's the state Thorn seems to be singing about on "Low Tide of the Night," in which she describes walking a London so deserted not even taxicabs are prowling the streets, keeping the answering machine turned on at home and sealing herself off with a Walkman when she ventures out during daylight hours. The soft saxophone that partner Ben Watt samples on the track adds just the right trace of elegant melancholia. Except that the chorus, "When you're down and troubled you don't tell your friends/Don't tell your family ... I'm gonna let nobody down," reveals something very different, isolation not as self-pity but as pride. "Temperamental" is classically a piece of romantic pop, but it's also about the trap of isolation, particularly musical isolation.

Perhaps you have to be able to hear how well Everything But the Girl would fit (have fit) on adult contemporary radio, or to realize that they've been around long enough (17 years) to be taken for granted as dependable, pleasant pop craftsmen, to understand why "Temperamental" feels like some sort of pop landmark. Musically, the album goes even further into the drum 'n' bass and house music influences heard on the duo's last album, "Walking Wounded" (1996). (One track, "Compression," is pure drum 'n' bass, no vocals.) Since the release of that album, Ben Watt has been DJing regularly in London clubs, and the album reflects his commitment to that music.

The significance of that commitment is inseparable from the fact that Watt and Thorn are in their late 30s, well past the age when most pop fans and all but a few pop performers stop processing what's new in music. To be fair, getting a handle on electronic music presents a unique set of difficulties, since the genre offers so few of the usual particulars: vocals, identifiable performers, even traditional methods of live performance. And there seems to be an unspoken fear among those who don't respond to electronic music that anything as repetitive and dependent on technology is necessarily cold and soulless (even though the best electronic dance tracks provide an experience that is overwhelmingly physical while transcending the physical). Everything But the Girl answer that fear on the new album's closing track -- a collaboration with house artists Deep Dish -- with the line "The future of the future will still contain the past."

The duo has listened to the beats and programming and sampling of the new music and heard new soundscapes for pop's traditional subjects: romance and its discontents, the city and its anonymous and intimate pleasures. On "Walking Wounded" and now on "Temperamental," Everything But the Girl are working toward a new synthesis, wedding the solitary reveries of romantic pop to the sonic atmospherics and communal sensuality of electronic dance music. To a band for whom mood has always been preeminent -- from their first album, "Eden," to the single "Driving" from "The Language of Life" (1990) -- house and drum 'n' bass open up myriad new ways of establishing and manipulating atmosphere. At times, as on "Blame," with its pleasing sonic hiss (the sound of old records) laid over a furious, nervous-making rhythm, "Temperamental" feels like an attempt to find the slow motion within the hyper motion of dance music, a search for a moment of peace among daily tumult, or simply for the time to observe and connect with the people and things around you. As much as anything, that explains why this album seems to contain so much of the experience of urban life. It's as if the band set forth to call up both the utopianism of disco and the quotidian celebrations of Frank O'Hara's "Lunch Poems": "The sun is hot, but the cabs stir up the air. I look at bargains in wristwatches. There are cats playing in sawdust."

The lyrics, by Watt and Thorn, are some of the hardest-edged and acutely observed they've yet written. Details, like emerging from a club at 2 a.m. and realizing you don't have a coat, come out of the beat like bursts of plain poetry: "I walk the city late at night/Does everyone here do the same?/I want to be the things I see/Give every face and place my name"; "Did I grow up/Just to stay home?"; "All the effort that it took to get there in the first place and all the effort not to let the effort show"; and perhaps the album's best lines, "When I'm looking back I look for everyone/And when I fall down I fall for anyone." As an expression of what we don't learn from experience and how time doesn't heal all wounds, that's pretty unbeatable.

Thorn's voice is particularly suited to the album's lyrical starkness. There are singers who matter more than Tracey Thorn, but no current one whose voice endears such immediate trust. Thorn's vocals here are as warm as always, but there's a new directness to them. Having
abandoned the part of retro pop vocalist, the sound that made her so simultaneously arresting and reassuring, Thorn now appears as an irreducibly real person. Vocal after vocal seems to say, "I want to talk to you about something that happened," and that act of direct speech catches you, makes you want to stay around for what she has to say. Some of what she has to impart isn't pretty -- an adolescent memory of a friend knifed on the way home, a blasted emotional landscape fusing with a blasted urban one in "Blame" (originally written for Michael Winterbottom's "Welcome to Sarajevo"). But it all has the complexity of real experience. It's difficult to think of another singer whose growth has come from the abandonment of artifice (which is not to say the abandonment of nuance or emotion).

In keeping with the cut-and-sample spirit of electronic music, Watt has made use of Thorn's ad-libs and unused takes, chopped them up into backing vocals or layered them as sonic texture among the grooves. At one point in the title track Watt reduces her vocal to a series of sonic blips -- a daring move since Thorn's voice has long been the duo's signature. But her flesh-and-blood presence in the songs is stronger than it has ever been, plainer and richer, and more emotive for that plainness.

"Temperamental" is smooth enough to function as background for the sort of comfortable 30ish folks Thorn sings about in "No Difference," but that would mean dealing with the picture the song paints of their lives. "Your keys, your bag, the car/They're where they always are," Thorn sings, capturing in those three precise images the ennui of comfort that is too often the replacement for the enthusiasm of youth. But the song, a lifeline thrown to a partner drowning in place, is a refusal of those velvet limits: "All the lights come on, and they call to me ... oh come on, come on/You'll be dead a long time and it makes a difference to me," and there's the ache of hope in Thorn's voice, a sliver of expectation that the partner she's singing to will rise from his comfy chair to take her hand and lead her onto the dance floor.

"No Difference" can stand as something like Everything But the Girl's statement of ethics, perhaps even an image of what they might have slipped into had they not struck out for the new territory they inhabit so exquisitely on "Walking Wounded" and "Temperamental." The wonderful irony of their success here is that they started out aping "classic" pop sounds. But realizing that pop is the moment -- whatever's
happening on the charts and in the clubs right now --
they have embraced it while adding their voice to it,
in the process making music that is of its time yet still
feels as if it will be around when the current style has
given way to something else. Their constant is the commitment to pop itself and to its romantic ideals. As it was in the beginning, 'tis now and ever shall be. Or, if you prefer, the beats may change but the heartbeat remains the same.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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