Album of the Week, December 21: Everything But the Girl

EBtGUSBen Watt and Tracey Thorn were classmates at the University of Hull and label mates on Cherry Hill records in the early 80s. Thorn had recorded as a member of the Marine Girls and released a solo disc, A Distant Shore. Watt had also released an album, North Marine Drive, and contributed photography to a Marine Girls sleeve. They decided to work together, naming their partnership from a local store’s slogan. Their first single was a cover of Cole Porter’s Night and DayThey served as “honourary Councillors” on the Style Council’s first full-length release, Café Bleu, with Thorn singing lead on the haunting The Paris Match. During that time they also put together their debut, Eden, composing all the tracks themselves and working with a smart studio band that included bassist Phil Moxham from Young Marble Giants. They helped pioneer the “sophisti-pop” sound that blended quiet pop, smooth jazz, and bossa nova into a distinctive mix. The disc did well in the U.K., going to #14 and spinning off the Top 30 single Each and Everyone.

Title Everything But the Girl
Act Everything But the Girl
Label Sire Release Date 1984
Producer Robin Millar
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Each and Everyone
  2. Tender Blue
  3. Another Bridge
  4. Frost and Fire
  5. Fascination
  6. Crabwalk
  7. Never Could Have Been Worse
  8. Laugh You Out the House
  9. Mine
  10. Easy As Sin
  11. Native Land
  12. Riverbed Dry

For their first U.S. release, Sire dropped six of the tracks, adding the B-sides from Each and Everyone and both sides of the next two, non-album U.K. singles. While that decision created an unfortunate catalog inconsistency, it resulted in a much stronger, more cohesive album, with only the charming Spice of Life being a significant loss. The first six tracks (side one of the original vinyl) of Everything But the Girl are from Eden; the next six are the replacement tracks.

Each and Everyone is a perfect introduction to the duo, a quiet, tragic tale of heartbreak with Thorn showing off her vocal power by using just the right amount of restraint. With a samba beat and s smart delivery, it’s a nice bit of cocktail pop that presents the pair at their early best. On Tender Blue, Watt provides a rare lead vocal, trading sections with Thorn. The juxtaposition works well, accenting different elements of this story of domestic distress. Another Bridge combines a folky acoustic guitar with a quietly jazzy organ, putting nervous energy behind Thorn’s anxious delivery as she addresses a former lover. A different kind of heartbreak than Each and Everyone, it’s a nice contrast. Frost and Fire is an angrier song with a bitter edge, given special power through the restrained delivery. Fascination is one of the pair’s finest songs, even three decades later. A wistful look at romance, it provides a mature perspective on dealing with the loves in a new partner’s past. The lyric is cleverly constructed and flawlessly delivered, providing a highlight of both albums. Crabwalk wraps up the Eden material with a cute, jazzy instrumental — nothing spectacular, but a fun palate cleanser before moving on to the newer songs.

Never Could Have Been Worse and Laugh You Out the House featured on the flip side of the Each and Everyone single. They outshine most of the Eden tracks, demonstrating a greater lyrical depth and more confident delivery. The first is a haunting look at domestic violence told from a deceptively safe third-person distance. Laugh is a brief dissection of the pain of a stiff-upper-lip culture. They’re a poignant pair that show just how quickly the duo matured. Mine is another standout, a quietly determined feminist song narrated by a single mother. Smartly minimalist, it convinces quietly and shows off the duo’s less-is-more aesthetic perfectly. Easy As Sin was it’s B-side, a charming pop gem with ringing guitar work and a bolder vocal. A potent snapshot of temptation to infidelity, it’s a wonderful package of images narrated with disarming honesty. Native Land is a stern rebuke of classism and bigotry with a tasty harmonica bit provided by Johnny Marr. The musical diversity adds to the overall package and the bitter determination is another look at EBtG’s lyrical talents. Things wrap up with Riverbed Dry, another quietly wistful pop song that brings the disc to a perfect close.

FURTHER LISTENING: Watt and Thorn — who are also a married couple but very reticent about their private lives — followed a restless muse, shifting their style album by album. The next three discs are solid, slowly easing away from the more Latin influences and focusing on folky pop. Smooth jazz influences surge back in for the next pair, followed by an acoustic pop outing. The best two of this period are Love Not Money and Idlewild, both of which balance the duo’s smart social observations with their flawless dissection of romance and heartache. 1994 brought their stunning eighth album, Amplified Heart, which featured heavier pop textures under their continued lyrical growth. That disc spawned the massive hit Missing, remixed by Todd Terry and spending over a year on the Hot 100, making it all the way to #2. The club sounds that Terry provided inspired another change of direction and the duo’s three subsequent albums feature more electronica and trip-hop influences. The best of these is the quietly urgent Walking Wounded. The pair have been on hiatus since 1999, with Watt pursuing his DJ career and Thorn releasing solid solo discs.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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