Review: Deluxe Editions from Everything But The Girl
The band’s name is Everything But The Girl, but the reissue campaign might as well be titled Everything But the Kitchen Sink. Over the course of four 2-CD sets, the Edsel label has crafted a comprehensive, definitive retrospective of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt’s early years as merchants of cool, sophisticated and literate pop. EBTG’s first four albums, originally released on the Blanco Y Negro label, have each been granted the deluxe treatment with an additional disc of non-LP singles, B-sides, demos and live performances. Best of all, each album is housed classy packaging befitting the stylish sounds within.
Having met while students at Hull University, Thorn and Watt first collaborated in 1982 on a reinterpretation of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” not the most common choice of repertoire in the early days of that decade. It’s absent from these new reissues, but it was an auspicious start, and the choice of a jazz standard anticipated subsequent projects. Watt and Thorn pursued separate, solo paths immediately after, but soon reunited for a cover of The Jam’s “English Rose” before crafting their own full-length debut. 1984’s Eden is the first of the four titles just reissued by Edsel (EDSK 7004). All four albums have very different stylistic signatures from one another, but all draw clearly on musical influences without ever being strictly derivative.
Sadness permeates Eden, with each track written by Thorn and Watt, either collectively or individually. Thorn took the role of primary lead vocalist, with Watt handling guitars and organ. Their songs here are tautly crafted; only five out of twelve tracks surpass the 3-minute mark. And although overt melodic hooks aren’t emphasized, the songs still captivate with airy, often Brazilian-influenced arrangements. Eden flirts with jazz, the kind of album Creed Taylor might have produced for Astrud Gilberto in 1984. The breezy, trumpet-flecked bossa nova of the opening track, “Each and Everyone,” is just the first evocation of steamy Latin evenings. “Even So” (replete with castanets!) is another perfect, moody piece, as is “I Must Confess,” with its dash of “The Girl from Ipanema” courtesy of the slinky tenor sax of Nigel Nash. The melancholy in the lyrics is brought out by the ironic contrast of the bossa nova settings.
Though nothing’s easy about the listening, Eden is ideal late night music suitable for listening with a cocktail in hand. Tracey Thorn’s vocals are smoky, while vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Watt glides above her with a harmony on “Bittersweet.” Its bed of percussion and subtle guitar accent a stark, if conversational, sadness: “Being pushed about is nothing much to shout about, I know…” Watt offers haunting vocal on “Soft Touch” and a jazzier, low-key lead on “Tender Blue,” which he shares with Tracey. This dark story song is arranged with an evocative horn hovering in comment, eventually taking a mournful solo.
The album is far from monotonous, however. “Another Bridge” tells its story of love lost in a guitar-pop idiom, with a groovy electric organ underpinning its lyric (“You can’t hold onto everything/And I’ve forgotten what we talked about a long time since/Can’t recall days with regret/Tomorrow remember today/And all the rest forget”). And a sleek, saxophone-driven instrumental “Crabwalk” brings yet another dimension to Eden.
The deluxe edition is bolstered with no fewer than eight associated singles including the up-tempo “Laugh You Out the House,” and “Never Could Have Been Worse” another dark vignette of a painful relationship. Johnny Marr plays the wailing harmonica on “Native Land,” the closest cut here to a mainstream rock track, while “Don’t You Go” is a John Martyn cover. In addition to the singles, you’ll find five vocal-and-guitar demos and four BBC session recordings for a total of seventeen bonus tracks. Of the demos, “Frost and Fire” is raw in its acoustic setting; of the BBC cuts, “Another Bridge” is a bit tougher in its live rendition.
As was the norm decades earlier with U.K. pop acts from The Beatles to Dusty Springfield, EBTG’s recordings were reshuffled for American release. Eden was not released in America; in its place came a self-titled set with six tracks from Eden and the remaining six drawn from non-LP singles. Thankfully, all of those tracks long familiar to U.S. listeners are included among the bonus material here. After the jump, we look at the remaining three reissues!
For 1985’s Love Not Money (EDSK 7005), produced by Eden’s Robin Sellars, the jazz feel was less overt. Thorn and Watt instead expanded their stylistic palette to include more prominent guitar and a contemporary sheen on standout tracks like “Ballad of the Times” and “Trouble and Strife.” As with Eden, Edsel’s reissue preserves the original U.K. album sequence, with U.S. additions “Heaven Help Me” and “Kid” present on the second disc. Despite the less “retro” vibe, however, Love Not Money is recognizably the work of the duo. The lyrics are just as downbeat as well as incisive; in the tribute to troubled actress Frances Farmer, “Ugly Little Dreams,” Thorn ponders, “What chance for such girls/How can we compete? In a world that likes its women/Stupid and sweet?” (“Ugly Little Dreams” anticipates the next album’s musical homage to Marilyn Monroe.) On the acerbic “Shoot Me Down,” Thorn is expressively tart over Watt’s horn arrangement, while country-and-western sounds offer variety on “Are You Trying to Be Funny” (“What d’ya mean you need love, not money? You expect to live in a land of milk and honey!”) and the rockabilly-flavored “Anytown.” Dick Pearce, Pete King and Nigel Nash from Eden return on, respectively, trumpet/flugelhorn, alto saxophone and tenor saxophone, but the band is expanded for with banjo, pedal steel, tin whistle and Neil Scott’s electric guitar.
The eleven bonuses (single sides, demos and BBC performances) are uniformly strong on Love Not Money. Non-LP single “Heaven Help Me” is a Wall of Sound in miniature, with its relatively spare production still capturing a big dynamic sound with punchy percussion. On the cover of Chrissie Hynde’s “Kid,” the husky timbre of Thorn’s voice recalls Hynde’s own. The unfamiliar sound of a drum machine almost intrudes when it appears on the home demo of “Angel,” a different kind of “Christmas song,” but EBTG would soon conquer that quintessentially eighties device. The BBC performances are quite energetic on the whole, but the melancholy organ of “This Love Not For Sale” is even more affecting in this version. The jazz style of Eden is most evoked on its slow-burning melody. The book included with Love Not Money includes a photograph of Ben Watt standing in front of New York’s legendary incubator of classic pop, The Brill Building. Indeed, with Love Not Money, Watt and Thorn came closer to meeting the timeless standard set by their inspirations. They would come still closer yet on 1986’s Baby the Stars Shine Bright, this time employing a full orchestra to bring their audio visions to life.
Thorn and Watt look happy and content on the retro-chic cover of their third album (EDSK 7006). Recorded at Abbey Road with a large orchestra, Baby is another another major stylistic shift. Sure, the themes are familiar: ruminations on relationships, infidelities, sexual politics, and the lure of stardom, to name a few, but all of these big topics are rendered in a big way here, with sweeping strings, sleigh bells and Bacharach horns punctuating the album’s ten new songs. Produced by Mike Hedges and EBTG, the album’s orchestral arrangements were by Nick Ingman, supporting the core band of Micky Harris (bass), Robert Peters (drums) and Cara Tracy (piano and organ). Both Eden and Love Not Money revealed that Tracey had a touch of Dusty Springfield in her dark-hued voice, but with this album, it’s possible that there were some Cilla Black albums in the closet, too!
The album opener and key single “Come On Home” is awash with symphonic strings, throbbing drums and dramatic heft, set to one of Thorn and Watt’s more openly emotional lyrics. It’s a sumptuous anthem, and is also heard in an extended mix, an acoustic version and a home demo on the bonus disc. The demo in every way indicates the grandeur that the finished track would possess with just Watt’s guitar, drum machine and synthesizer. The album’s other single, “Don’t Leave Me Behind,” is equally lush, with throbbing, jubilant brass. It’s a vibrant ‘60s-style pop homage and just as catchy with a typical EBTG lyrical twist (“You will be a star/And I will be so jealous when you are/But you’ll always be a fool/So I will catch you when the world is cruel…”). A very “Wichita Lineman”-esque guitar supports Thorn’s breathy vocals on “A Country Mile,” and it’s hard to tell where Ben ends and Tracey begins when she sings his passionate “Careless.” The orchestra is deployed in a sleek, R&B-influenced way for “Sugar Finney.” The mordant track is dedicated to Marilyn Monroe (“America is free, cheap and easy…”) while “Little Hitler” is equally scathing. No relation to Elvis Costello’s “Two Little Hitlers,” the Thorn-penned track pleads, “Little Hitler, don’t come ‘round here again/With your renegade politics, redder-than-thou disdain…Little Hitlers, little Hitlers, grow up into big Hitlers/And look what they do!”
Costello, who had by 1986 already expanded his own musical style, was one of the influences on Baby the Stars Shine Bright. In their introductory liner notes to this reissue, Thorn and Watt admit that “the [album’s] B-sides pin the colours of the album directly to the mast.” Hence, we’re treated to recordings from the songbooks of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Jimmy Webb and Costello. “Alfie” is full-voiced and emotive; it doesn’t attempt to replicate the lush original and instead features just piano, bass, drums, guitar and organ. Ben sings an affecting “Where’s the Playground, Susie” spotlighting one of Jimmy Webb’s lesser-known hits for Glen Campbell, while Tracey takes the lead on “Almost Blue.” A country style comes to the fore on the cover of Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard’s “I Fall to Pieces” while Thorn’s “Draining the Bar” is another lovely C&W tune, this time highlighted with B.J. Cole’s pedal steel.
A rare misstep in these exemplary collections is the exclusion of Watt’s live performance of the Elvis Presley perennial “Always on My Mind” as heard on the double-pack limited edition single of “Don’t Leave Me Behind.” Watt and Thorn reveal in their liner notes that they’re “not crazy about it” so they opted to leave it off this expanded edition. Following the seven B-sides, five demos round out the bonus disc.
Fans might have been forgiven for wondering which EBTG they would be getting on the duo’s fourth outing, 1988’s Watt-produced Idlewild (EDSK 7007). The notes from Thorn and Watt point out the conflicting impulses that led to the record’s creation: the “crispy neo-soul” produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, traditional folk, and the desire to create a modern but intimate sound even as “eighties production techniques got more and more elaborate.” The resulting album opened with the sound of a drum machine, and musically recalled Love Not Money more than Eden or Stars Shine Bright. But the Yamaha RX5 drums and Damon Butcher’s synthesizer gives the album its very own unique character, and pointed the way towards an “adult contemporary” direction for Everything But the Girl. (Steve Pearce on bass guitars joined Thorn, Watt and Butcher.)
The lyrics here are even more narrative than in the past, like prose sentences carefully overlaid on music with less adherence to rhyme schemes and traditional structure. That said, Idlewild is still chock filled with memorable songs and performances. The shimmering “I Always Was Your Girl” makes room for a tasty Peter King alto sax solo, while James McMillan adds his sultry trumpet to “Shadow on a Harvest Moon.” Ben Watt sings his own strangely affecting “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing,” observing “he’s almost as good as Presley,” and Thorn joins him on the tender harmony.
Thorn and Watt share the universal sentiment of “Lonesome For a Place I Know” (“But something pulls, something I can’t define tells me England calls, whatever she’s done wrong, always calls ‘This is where you belong’. And I’m lonesome for a place I know”) and the album also includes the original version of “Apron Strings,” with its central instrumental riff resembling The Beatles’ “In My Life.” It was rewritten to order for John Hughes’ comedy She’s Having a Baby, and both the film version and the original demo are also included on the second disc.
Though Idlewild remains accessible, it has “dated” (what a loathsome word!) somewhat more than the other three albums in this set as it’s the most dependent on then-contemporary sounds. Ten single sides have been appended to the 11-track original album; EBTG’s cover of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It” was added to Idlewild following the single release’s success, but it’s included here in the appendix, not on the album itself. The song hit No. 3 Pop (U.K.), perhaps paving the way for Rod Stewart’s No. 2 Pop (U.S.) version that followed in 1989. No stranger to musings on love lost, Thorn’s voice is sympathetic to Whitten’s supremely forlorn lyric. An instrumental version is also included. Two more B-sides, “Dyed in the Grain” and “Hang Out the Flags,” were originally intended for Idlewild but replaced by “Goodbye Sunday” and “Blue Moon Rose” when the label brass found the album too downbeat! More familiar themes are explored in the B-side “Another Day, Another Dollar”: rejection of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe, and Thorn’s relationship with England. Another departed icon, Judy Garland, is invoked on the sad and soulful but jazzy “Hang Out the Flags.”
As with Baby the Stars Shine Bright, there are some well-chosen cover versions, Paul Overstreet’s “No Place Like Home” and Irving Berlin’s “How About Me.” The latter, with Watt’s guitar as the only accompaniment to Thorn’s vocals, sounds thoroughly contemporary despite being written in 1928. It’s no small testament to Berlin’s genius and his deceptive simplicity. Thorn as chanteuse cuts to the heart of a lyric already supremely traversed by legends like Garland, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.
Seven demos and the aforesaid film version of “Apron Strings” are also among the whopping eighteen bonus tracks here. As usual, the demos will be most fascinating to those who are familiar with the released versions, though these embryonic recordings are eminently listenable in their own right. The melody of “I Always Was Your Girl” might be even more infectious and alluring in demo form!
Miles Showell at Metropolis has remastered all four sets, under the direction of project coordinator Phil Penman and project manager Val Jennings. All are to be commended for these striking editions. The mini-hardcover books are generously illustrated with single sleeves, ticket stubs, tour schedules, memorabilia and plentiful photographs of Ben and Tracey, plus full lyrics and an introductory essay from the duo in each book. Uniformly designed, the colorful spines on each title look terrific next to one another on the shelf.
Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn had their biggest worldwide success in the mid-1990s with the song “Missing,” but haven’t performed publicly since 2000. They remain a couple, however, and have left behind a rich legacy of music that deserves to be better-known. The stars shine bright on Edsel’s tremendous new campaign. Hopefully, it’s just the start!
Edsel’s Everything But The Girl reissues are available now and can be ordered at the links above!