Best Songs of the ’10s: #20-11

20. K.D. Lang & The Siss Boom Bang, “The Water’s Edge”
The highlight from Lang’s underrated 2011 album Sing It Loud, it has all of her strengths, from that one-of-a-kind voice to her refusal to play by genre rules. Timeless and deeply felt, it’s the song from her post-Ingenue catalog that should be as ubiquitous as “Constant Craving”.

19. Lana Del Rey, “Mariners Apartment Complex”
Possibly the decade’s best singles artist, this initial peek into her first great album solidifies all of her obsessions and aesthetic proclivities but also recasts them into something more intimate and direct and yet stylish enough to pull off that harpischord twirl in the intro.

18. M83, “Midnight City”
I resisted at first—what a blatant ’80s pastiche! Within weeks, however, I found myself genuinely thrilled to hear that dramatic intro, that moment when the beat wallops in, that breakdown after the second chorus, that shameless but transcendent sax solo at the climax.

17. Kelsey Lu, “Poor Fake”
Always on the lookout for weird new female artists that have at least a little Kate Bush in them, I instantly fell in love with this when it appeared on my Spotify “Discover Weekly” playlist. An orchestrated, danceable will o’ the wisp concerning art forgery? Yes, please.

16.Imperial Teen, “How We Say Goodbye”
As perfect a three-minute power pop song as you’re ever likely to hear; deceptively simple, it so effortlessly builds from verse to chorus that by the time it reaches the title hook at the end, you’re so caught up in the melodic rush of it all you might not realize how they’ve achieved so much with so little.

15. Emm Gryner, “Imagination”
From “Summerlong” to “Ciao Monday” this Canadian singer-songwriter has a talent for big hooks that you want to tell the whole world about; this one, a bold, technicolor, neo-psychedelic wonder, shows that two decades in, she still has the knack for them.

14. Florence + The Machine, “Queen of Peace”
She hasn’t topped Lungs yet, but she’s come close a few times, most noticeably on this track from her third album which tricks the listener into thinking it’s one kind of song (an aria, or a power ballad?) until the unexpected Motown-style beat appears and it suddenly transforms into something else altogether—just as exciting, and you can dance to it.

13. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Boy Problems”
Who knew teen-pop could be so utterly sublime? I admit I did not until this gem from her beloved E*MO*TION album wore me down (and it didn’t take long.) It’s as calculating a pop song as you’re ever likely to hear, but so sincere and yearning that the giddy high it produces is well worth whatever it does to get to that rare, heavenly place.

12. Tracey Thorn, “Dancefloor”
Thorn’s solo career continues to impress for its conciseness; this final track from Record is both a declaration and an epiphany: “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me,” she notes over vital electro-beats, and I can’t imagine anyone who has ever loved singing along to music whether in a club or in the shower not being able to relate.

11. Of Monsters and Men, “Dirty Paws”
I ignored this in favor of hits like “Little Talks” until I heard it in trailer for Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty—its dynamic build, chiming notes and over-the-top shouts of HEY! got my attention, and I love how it goes out on a limb to risk seeming foolish or uncool, and ends up sounding rather glorious.

2019 Booklist

My ten favorite books I read in 2019; naturally, given recent tendencies, more than half are memoirs:

10. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
Thorn’s third memoir reconciles her past and present, with her teenaged diaries serving as a revealing jumping-off point. Ever perceptive, relatable and just a little wry, she details how she initially rejected a provincial life in favor of urban bohemia, only to eventually find a solid middle ground while also remaining a pop star (albeit a most unconventional one.)

9. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, a German-born, Canadian-based filmmaker (Marion Bridge, The Saver). Her debut novel has all of the intuitiveness and empathy of her films; it also excels and engages both as a family kitchen-sink dramedy and via the rich sense of place in which she depicts downtown Toronto.

8. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
Only Orlean would probably think to write an entire book about the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and only in her hands would it come off so personable and far-reaching. Anyone who’s spent time in a library whether as an employee or a patron will appreciate the lyricism Orlean locates in an underrated but vital municipal institution.

7. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
Following last year’s great collection of essays, Abdurraqib tightens his focus to an entire book about legendary rap group A Tribe Called Quest. Such is his talent and original approach to criticism/memoir that, even if you’re not familiar with the music here (like me), it’s not difficult to get wrapped up in the twin tales being laid out of artist and fan and how each one informs the other.

6. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
Folds is so utterly himself—musical prodigy, everyman iconoclast, thoughtful goofball—that his own, often rollicking account of his gradual and relatively unusual rise to semi-stardom never plays a false note. Recommended to aging Gen-X-ers, power-pop admirers, recovering workaholics, divorced parents and terminal smartasses.

5. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
A witty comedy of errors that subtly reaches back to such luminaries as Wilde, Waugh and Wodehouse, it also somehow feels of the moment. Following his hero across several continents, Greer’s light touch, combined with an ever-so-slightly acidic demeanor proves irresistible—as complete and satisfying as, say, a Carson McCullers novel, only more generous.

4. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
How could a collection of essays about Peanuts, one of my favorite things ever, not end up in my top five? These thirty-odd pieces dissect Charles Schulz’s work in a myriad of directions, from comic precedents and critical analysis to memoir and even stylistic parody. All of it conveys that, twenty years on from its creator’s death, the potential Peanuts contains remains endless.

3. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
Branum does not suffer fools gladly, which always makes for a refreshing, readable memoir; that he mostly avoids archness and navel-gazing makes for an uncommonly honest one as well. Whether dishing about former boss Chelsea Handler or writing frankly about obesity, he’s curious and stimulating instead of settling for bitter and bitchy.

2. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
Reichl’s best book since Garlic and Sapphires, which also happens to be her last work-centric memoir, this is her long-awaited account of her ’00s stint as a editor-in-chief of the now shuttered magazine Gourmet. Previously an outsider to the industry, she provides a fascinating assessment of its politics and inner workings that, over time, turns into a requiem for a fading profession—with recipes, of course.

1. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
I didn’t even know this singer/songwriter, best known for her plucky 1996 solo debut Diary of a Mod Housewife, had written a memoir until I checked her blog a few weeks after it came out. And like Diary did for her music, this proves she’s a natural writer as well. Spanning mostly from her move to Manhattan from Pittsburgh at age 17 in the late ’70s to Diary’s release, Rigby both depicts a lost New York and completely nails the exhilaration and anxiety of being young and on your own and desperately wanting to create art and partake in culture when the everyday world makes it challenging to do so. It gets the top spot here because, more than any musician’s memoir I’ve read in the past few years, I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they’ve never heard a note of Rigby’s music.

Honorable Mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation; A.M. Homes, Days of Awe; Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch; Kate Atkinson, Life After Life; John Hodgman, Medallion Status; Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room

Here’s my complete 2019 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read–8 this year, which is twice as many as in 2018!):

  1. Susan Orlean, The Library Book
  2. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
  3. Abbi Jacobson, I Might Regret This
  4. Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba
  5. Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test
  6. Robert Christgau, Does It Feel Good To Ya?
  7. Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known As The Human Condition
  8. Fredric Dannen, Hit Men
  9. Hanif Abdurraqib, Go Ahead In The Rain
  10. Merrill Markoe, What The Dogs Have Taught Me
  11. Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent*
  12. Ottessa Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation
  13. Elizabeth McCracken, Bowlaway
  14. Curtis Sittenfeld, You Think It, I’ll Say It
  15. Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
  16. Tracey Thorn, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia
  17. A.M. Homes, Days of Awe
  18. David Sedaris, Dress The Family In Corduroy and Denim*
  19. Paul Myers, The Kids In The Hall: One Dumb Guy
  20. Ruth Reichl, Save Me The Plums: My Gourmet Memoir
  21. Guy Branum, My Life As A Goddess
  22. Peter Heller, The River
  23. Clarice Lispector, Complete Stories
  24. Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
  25. Brian Raftery, Best. Movie. Year. Ever.
  26. Frank DeCaro, Drag: Combing Through The Big Wigs of Show Business
  27. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
  28. Ani DiFranco, No Walls and the Reoccurring Dream
  29. John Waters, Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder
  30. Emily Nussbaum, I Like To Watch
  31. Rob Sheffield, Love is A Mixtape*
  32. Haruki Murakami, The Elephant Vanishes
  33. H. Jon Benjamin, Failure Is An Option
  34. Andrew Sean Greer, Less
  35. Ramin Setoodeh, Ladies Who Punch
  36. Bob Stanley, Sleevenotes
  37. Leslie Marmon Silko, Almanac of The Dead*
  38. Douglas Coupland, Eleanor Rigby
  39. Kurt Vonnegut, Slapstick, or, Lonesome No More!*
  40. Kate Atkinson, Life After Life
  41. Ben Folds, A Dream About Lightning Bugs
  42. Tom Spanbauer, The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon*
  43. David Crabb, Bad Kid: A Memoir*
  44. Wiebke von Carolsfeld, Claremont
  45. Richard Brautigan, So The Wind Won’t Blow It All Away
  46. Andrew Blauner (Ed.), The Peanuts Papers
  47. Patti Smith, Year Of The Monkey
  48. Amy Rigby, Girl To City: A Memoir
  49. John Hodgman, Medallion Status
  50. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping*
  51. Lindy West, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman
  52. Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room
  53. McDonnell/O’Connell/de Havenon, Krazy Kat: The Art of George Herriman
  54. Vince Aletti, The Disco Files
  55. Alan Bennett, Untold Stories

Tracey Thorn, “Record”

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #100 – released March 2, 2018)

Track listing: Queen / Air / Guitar / Smoke / Sister / Go / Babies / Face / Dancefloor

After Amplified Heart gave Everything But The Girl a crossover hit with Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing”, this duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, then more than a decade into their career, soldiered on for two more albums of electronic dance music inspired by this late-breaking success before essentially disbanding in 2000—I purposely use that term, for the longtime couple stopped being a band but remained together in every other sense. Thorn, who had given birth to twins two years before, later revealed in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen that she was simply ready to stop recording and performing to raise a family. She and Watt would have another child in 2001 and eventually, officially marry in 2008, over a quarter century after they met at Hull University.

Fortunately for her fans, Thorn didn’t stay retired from music (though she never returned to live performance.) Surfacing in 2007 with a solo effort, Out Of The Woods, she retained the sound of those later EBTG albums but on a more intimate scale. Directly addressing her time away from the spotlight on such tunes as “Nowhere Near” and “Raise The Roof”, Thorn crafted a modern, electro-update of singer-songwriter chestnuts like Tapestry and Blue. Her next album, 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, displayed a wider array of textures with a far more somber tone. She later called it her “mid-life album”—a keen assessment given songs like the uncharacteristically peppy “Hormones” (“Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out,” she tells her daughters) and the stirring, chamber-pop ballad “Oh! The Divorces.”

In the past decade, she’s continued building an unconventional solo career: writing multiple books and a newspaper column, appearing on duets with such indie-centric artists as Jens Lekman and John Grant, recording a Christmas album here and a movie soundtrack there and just being a generally delightful presence on Twitter. When commencing work on Record, her first studio album of new songs in eight years, she tweeted something along the lines of, “Well, it’s time for me to make another album,” her casual frankness disarming as ever. And while I thought very highly of Love And Its Opposite when it came out and came around to thinking Out Of The Woods was even better than that some five or six years after its release, at present, I’m confident that Record is really Thorn’s most essential album since Amplified Heart.

“NINE FEMINIST BANGERS” reads the sticker on Record’s cover and one could not sum up its appeal more succinctly. Once again working with producer Ewan Pearson (having helmed the majority of her output since Out of The Woods), Thorn keeps to a limited but effective palette: synths, drum machines, some guitar and on one track (“Smoke”), a string arrangement. The blunt, one-word song titles perfectly fit their tunes’ musical and lyrical directness. Like Home Counties, Record was mostly conceived in a post-Brexit, Trump-ridden world and it subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) reflects such times from a distinct perspective—ever approachable and candid, Record is Thorn’s ongoing monologue of who and where she is now.

In that sense, opener “Queen” is an ideal statement of purpose. A sonic analogue to Saint Etienne’s 2012 single “Tonight”, it finds a woman considering herself in midlife over ringing, swooshing synths and a clarion, yearning chorus: “Am I queen / a magisterial has-been?,” she ponders, or perhaps “A star / Propping up the backstage bar?” They are questions specific to her life as a singer and public figure, but she shifts from the potentially autobiographical to the firmly universal by concluding, “And will I ever find love / or am I still waiting?”

From there, Record finds Thorn looking back and taking stock of her past. “Air” gently bubbles with traces of an awkward adolescence and the gender politics that drove and very nearly defined it: “Didn’t understand the rules or how to play,” she notes, before rattling off a series of self-critiques: “Too tall / All wrong / Deep voice / Headstrong.” Meanwhile, the music’s mid-tempo R&B-inflected pop (the closest Thorn has emulated the sound of Idlewild in some time) and breezy backing vocals from Shura reinforce the chorus’ simple but persuasive main hook, “I need some air,” with the word “I” delicately stretched out to five syllables.

“Guitar”, propelled by pulsating synths with the titular instrument only first appearing in the second verse offers transcendence from this dilemma. Although Thorn credits a boyfriend with “arm(ing) her with three chords,” teaching her how to play, it turns out he “was only just a catalyst.” She looks back on the affair with self-deprecation and a little bemusement, name-dropping Leonard Cohen, then slyly quoting his song “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” a few lines on (“Oh god, you couldn’t make it up,” she adds.) Still, she emphasizes her eventual self-triumph: “I couldn’t begin until I fell apart,” she admits before declaring, “Thank God I could sing and I had my guitar.”

“Smoke” goes back ever further, detailing her ancestral origin story in the guise of a modern folk ballad complete with a narrative structure and repeated phrases. Beginning with her Great-Grandparents, Thorn tells of how they moved into London (“to the rolling smoke”) and “had a son called James, who had a son called James” (“were there no other names?” she asks.) Two World Wars follow, and her mother “survived the Blitz / though she knew a girl, who knew a girl / who was blown to bits.” Thorn was born after her parents “fled the smoke,” escaping to the post-war suburbs where she herself would escape from come adulthood. Still, on the scintillating chorus, she sings, “London, you’re in my blood but I feel you going wrong.” As the song builds and sighs and marvelously changes keys at the bridge, Thorn’s history unfolds and blossoms, stretching on and outward like time itself.

“Sister” brings us back to the present with Corinne Bailey Rae’s brief, a capella vocal: it’s a beguiling intro to a minor-key anthem in the guise of an extended, eight-minute vamp sparkling with taut rhythm guitar licks, a mid-tempo beat groovy enough to dance to and an array of various synth filigrees (brought to the foreground in the mostly instrumental second half.) But don’t let the running time fool you—this is Thorn’s razor-sharp feminist manifesto and Record’s literal and thematic centerpiece. “Don’t mess with me, don’t hug my babies / I’ll come for you, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew” it starts before the singalong chorus where she states, “I am my mother / I am my mother now / I am my sister / and I fight like a girl.” Nothing cute, pensive or repentant here and that goes double on the bridge where she pointedly, cathartically asks, ‘Oh, what year is it? Still arguing the same shit. / What year is it? Same, same, same old shit.”

“Babies” is another anthem, far less angry but just as firm, offering no apologies for waiting to become a mother: “I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies,” goes the chorus, following an opening verse that’s one of the most clever ever written about birth control, rhyming “you push a little tablet through the foil” with “better than a condom or a coil.” But the song is also an ode to what happens when you decide to have babies and when they grow up to be teenagers. “Go to sleep, it’s 3 AM / Where are you, it’s 3 AM / in a cab at 3 AM / Don’t wait up it’s 3 AM,” she rattles off as the music percolates with a joyous, assembly line sheen.

On either side of “Babies” sits Record’s two ballads. “Go” is addressed from a parent to a child leaving home for the first time. Over slow, lingering chords reminiscent of a George Michael lament (most notably “One More Try”), the generally low-voiced Thorn starts off singing in her highest register: “I resign myself to time and what’s no longer mine,” before her own grief gives way to tenderness and support as she tells her child, “Pack your bags and smile, it will only be a little while.” “Face”, in which Thorn scrolls through an ex’s social media page seems less immediate by default, although her self-effacing humor (“If I just keep refreshing, maybe you’ll disappear”) buoys what is a perceptive take on having perhaps too much access to too many people at your fingertips.

Record roars back to life on its exhilarating closer, “Dancefloor”. Like much of the album, it’s Thorn making sense of who and where she is now as a mother, sister, wife, singer, songwriter, musician, author, etc. She asks questions both philosophical (”Where did we begin?”) and searching (“Who’s just desperate for anything at all / anything at all like love?”) before proclaiming, “Oh but where I’d like to be / is on a dancefloor with some drinks inside of me,” hanging out with friends, turning it out together to such perennial bangers as Chic’s “Good Times” and Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”. The vibrant, fizzy, electro backdrop, complete with robotic voices repeatedly announcing, “ON A DANCEFLOOR!” reinforces all of this. When Thorn suddenly reveals, “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me,” it’s a simple but immense, resounding epiphany—the kind one forever seeks but rarely finds in a pop song. How fitting that the last album in this project is not only called Record, but also recognizes how awesome it is that music has the power to shape and sustain a life.

Up next: 100 Albums concludes with an epilogue, or, my own looking back and taking stock.

“Dancefloor”:

“Sister”:

Best Albums of 2018: # 1

1. Tracey Thorn, “Record”

Yes, it’s an all-female Top Five, led by one of my all-time favorite artists. Thorn, a national treasure in the UK, has amassed an enviable oeuvre both as one-half of Everything But The Girl and through her sparse but generally superb solo work. However, Record, which via its cover sticker contains “nine feminist bangers” (go directly to the insurgent, eight-minute-long “Sister”) may be her most immediate and accomplished collection since Amplified Heart.

With an electronic dance tableau feeling homespun rather than secondhand, Thorn reclaims herself as a personable diva, her ever low-throated vocals enhanced, not defeated by age. She details her family history (“Smoke”), her musical origin story (“Guitar”), her decision to have children exactly when she was ready (“Babies”) her first grown child leaving home (“Go”) and her own status as pop star emeritus (“Queen”) all with an authority but also an uncommon closeness, as if coming from a mother, daughter or confidante. On Record’s glorious finale, dancing and drinking with her friends, she notes, “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me”–the kind of epiphany one looks for but rarely uncovers in pop music.

“Dancefloor”:

“Sister”:

 

Everything But The Girl, “Amplified Heart”

amplified heart

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #44 – released June 13, 1994)

Track listing: Rollercoaster / Troubled Mind / I Don’t Understand Anything / Walking To You / Get Me / Missing / Two Star / We Walk The Same Line / 25th December / Disenchanted

Following Idlewild, Everything But The Girl went to America to record their next album with Tommy LiPuma after he had expressed an interest in working with them. Producer of such eminent artists as Miles Davis, George Benson and Randy Newman, LiPuma seemed an unlikely choice for this understated British duo. While The Language of Life actually broke the band in the U.S. at last thanks to the VH-1 hit “Driving”, LiPuma’s slick, contemporary lite-jazz production left band and life partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt sounding a bit too middle-of-the-road for their own good. The next year, they returned to England and made the uninspired Worldwide, an album even smoother and blander than its predecessor.

A year later, Watt was diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune illness, spent nine weeks in a hospital, and nearly died. I mention this upfront because it is the key to understanding the album he and Thorn recorded after he recovered. Amplified Heart is, on the surface, full of songs about relationships in various states of disrepair and, in the case of its best-known track, obsession over a lost love. One doesn’t necessarily need to know the personal history behind these laments in order for them to resonate—Thorn and Watt remain exceptionally relatable pop stars, and the mostly acoustic, stripped-down arrangements allow for far more intimacy than those last two records were capable of. Still, once you know about the near-death experience its creators endured prior to making it, it’s impossible not to see how deeply it courses through it.

“Rollercoaster” right away establishes that Amplified Heart is a break from its recent predecessors. A lithe, somber bossa-nova, it’s mostly folkish/acoustic (the rhythm section consists of Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and legendary double-bassist Danny Thompson) with the exception of a synth that plays the part a sax or a flute would normally take—it’s surprisingly effective, blending right in with the bass, not subtracting any of the song’s warmth but instilling a sense of otherness. Even more striking are the lyrics—the opening lines, “I still haven’t got over it even now / I want to spend huge amounts of time on my own,” could refer to a faltering love when coming out of Thorn’s mouth, but it’s Watt who wrote them. The song later references “the road to my redemption” (read: recovery) and its hook goes, “I’m not really in your head,” a phrase that can cut both ways, perhaps alluding to how this illness altered each partner’s perception of the other as it occurred.

While Amplified Heart is predominantly (and somewhat ironically, given the title) acoustic and thus sounds timeless, like Idlewild, it contains a few modern elements. Both “Troubled Mind” and “Get Me” have electronic flourishes (looped drum-and-guitar samples, some subtle keyboard shading on top) that are far less stiff and integrated more organically into the arrangements than Idlewild’s drum machines. However, they seem to support rather than dominate the overall pastoral and bright flavor of the songs, which are still guitar heavy. Lyrically, the tunes also seem to mirror each other. Thorn’s “Troubled Mind” addresses a partner whom she increasingly finds hard to communicate with (“I’m trying to keep up with you / It’s hard enough when you speak clearly”), while Watt’s “Get Me” (which Thorn sings) offers a response of sorts: “I’ll tell you things ten thousand times / but do you ever get me?”

This symbiosis becomes further pronounced on the two songs enhanced by Harry Robinson’s sumptuous (but not overbearing) string arrangements. Thorn’s “I Don’t Understand Anything” may appear to be about a fractured affair (“Do you want what I want?,” she pleads in the first verse), but it also succinctly expresses that feeling of helplessness one gets from observing and being unable to fully get through to their partner. “You reach for me from miles away,” Thorn concludes, and the distance implied is not entirely physical. Four tracks later, Watt’s “Two Star” almost bluntly answers, “Stop listening to me / and don’t ask me how I feel,” but there’s more going on than just an argument or infidelity. For one thing, Thorn also sings “Two Star” (she’s really the primary vocalist of the duo). Although Watt hints at his own recent experiences (the remarkably descriptive lyric, “And I watch Saturday kids TV / yeah, with the sound turned down,” appears nearly verbatim in his illness memoir Patient, published a few years later), phrases such as “To judge a life this way / when my own’s in disarray” are universal enough that they could easily apply to either partner/band member.

If much of the album fixates on distances (physical, emotional, psychological) between two lovers, Thorn’s “We Walk The Same Line” reaffirms the strength such a long-term bond can hold (“If you lose your faith babe, you can have mine,” she sings in the chorus). The song’s cheery demeanor is a welcome respite from the subdued gloom surrounding it, not sounding too far off from “Driving”. However, as with Idlewild’s “These Early Days”, the sentiment reaches deeper than you’d expect, for Thorn also acknowledges how easily this bond can be tested. “When we meet what we’re afraid of / we find out what we’re made of” is one of the most honest, insightful lyrics ever about what it’s like for a love to be threatened by something beyond one’s control; sitting right there in the middle of a seemingly anodyne pop song only sharpens its impact.

Watt himself sings two songs on Amplified Heart. While his merely pleasant voice will never match Thorn’s distinct, deep, elegant low tone, he does sound like a changed man (and looks it, too—compare the cherubic, floppy-haired figure on Idlewild’s cover with the far more gaunt, emaciated man not facing the camera here); in Patient, he writes, post-illness, “I find my voice has a new-found strength to it, a greater projection, more meaning.” When you hear him sing on the album for the first time, on “Walking To You”, you can comprehend such strength, especially as he’s placed upfront in the mix with only a bed of strummed, ringing guitars behind him. It’s a seemingly simple tune about former lovers who have stayed in touch as friends, but continue to question what could have been. Thorn takes over on the second verse, making it a duet, but when both their voices blend together so beautifully on the song’s remainder, it reinforces the value of this bond they’ve built together, both professionally and personally.

However, Watt’s other vocal song, the penultimate “25th December” is the album’s true centerpiece. Again, the music’s sparse—mostly gently chiming guitars (including an guest solo from Richard Thompson, another Fairport Convention member) backing Watt’s introspective, vulnerable, undeniably personal lyrics. The first verse reflects on how “my old man plays the piano for Christmas,” being surrounded once again by family for this most celebrated and often melancholy of holidays. “And I never, no I never, ever realized,” is the plaintive chorus; it acquires more weight after the second verse, where he muses on being thirty years old (which places this as the first Christmas after his illness). He asks, “Have I enough time, have I just some time / to revisit, to go back, to return, to open my mouth again?” For someone who has just gone through an extraordinary trauma, it’s a profound question. How exactly does one go on after courting, then cheating death? In the final verse, Watt’s lyrics turn metaphorical, as he tries to “unlock a door / with a key that’s too big for my hands.” He drops the key at (presumably) his partner’s feet, and the final lyric, “Come on, come on, it’s there at your feet” almost magically joins up with and complements the chorus, the two lines repeating as the song fades out.

Then, the album ends on the brief, devastating “Disenchanted”, where Thorn (with some help from alto saxophonist Peter King) mournfully concludes, “I wonder, can you try again? Are you that strong?” Its placement shrewdly calls back to that notion, “When we meet what we’re afraid of, we find out what were made of.” However, it’s not quite the final word. On later versions of the album, it’s followed by the Todd Terry remix of “Missing”, whose original version kicks off the album’s second side. I’ve ignored it thus far because it is sort of the big elephant in Amplified Heart’s candlelit room.

The album version of “Missing” actually fits in pretty well among its peers. Although built around a drum loop inspired by Raze’s 1988 club hit “Break 4 Love”, it doesn’t sound much like something you’d hear in a club. Still, it’s tough denying how transparently it stands out as the catchiest thing on the album. “And I miss you / like the deserts miss the rain,” goes its indelible chorus, as acoustic guitar triplets and atmospheric synths score a melody that gently glides along like a locomotive, with Thorn effectively guiding all in the right direction even as her narrator flails about in despair, seeking remnants of a life once shared with another, admitting, “You’re long gone, but I can’t move on.”

Initially one of Amplified Heart’s failed singles, “Missing” had a belated, rare second life thanks to Terry’s remix, which radically strips down the song to Thorn’s isolated vocal and places a minimalist but prominent rhythm track behind it. This new version slowly became a big dance hit that unexpectedly crossed over to the pop charts, even going all the way to #2 in the US more than eighteen months after it was first released. At the time, I lazily dismissed it as a sellout move because I had first heard the album and fallen for it after borrowing it from the library the summer before. Fortunately, within a few years, I grew to appreciate how Terry’s remix utterly transformed the song, keeping the melody intact while letting the beat heighten the palpable fear and longing in Thorn’s words and vocals.

The song’s massive success broadened the band’s audience considerably, but it also somewhat obscured the album’s accomplishment by sounding like nothing else on it. Thorn and Watt ended up reinforcing this by delving full-on into electronic dance music on their next two albums, Walking Wounded and Temperamental. It’s difficult to begrudge them for doing so—they were obviously ready to move on from such a rough period of their lives. Still, Amplified Heart aligns with the notion that the best art is often born out of immense pain. The crown jewel in EBTG’s catalog, it is an about-face where Thorn and Watt reaffirmed and utilized all of their musical strengths—it’s conceivable they could have made just as good of a record had they not gone through such hell, but it surely would not have been the same record.

Up next: Music startling enough to make you want to stop driving and pull the car over.

“Rollercoaster”:

“25th December”:

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL, “IDLEWILD”

Idlewild

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #25 – released February 1988. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 3/1/2015)

Track listing*: Love Is Here Where I Live / These Early Days / I Always Was Your Girl / Oxford Street / The Night I Heard Caruso Sing / Goodbye Sunday / Shadow On A Harvest Moon / Blue Moon Rose / Tears All Over Town / Lonesome For A Place I Know / Apron Strings

(*Many copies begin with a cover of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, which was tacked on after it became a big UK hit four months after the album’s release. Since the band reverted to the original track listing on the 2012 Edsel reissue, I’ve done the same here.)

The band name of longtime musical and life partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, Everything But The Girl defies simple categorization if you scan through its discography. Jazzy and primarily acoustic, Eden (1984) neatly fits into the UK sophisti-pop movement of that period, but the jangly, guitar-heavy Love Not Money (1985) is far more driven by love for The Smiths than Stan Getz. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (1986) mostly eschews six-strings for a full orchestra in an attempt to replicate classic Dionne Warwick as produced by Burt Bacharach. The only constant among these first three albums is Thorn’s low, somewhat reticent tone (along with Watt’s pleasant, if less distinctive occasional vocals)—and she came from a DIY/punk-influenced background as a member of The Marine Girls (he was the one who loved jazz).

Album number four, Idlewild deliberately backs away from the previous record’s opulence—it’s as stripped-down as Eden, but definitely more contemporary pop than jazz, and decidedly more mature (unusually so given that its creators were only in their mid-20’s). Thorn and Watt claimed they set out to make a “folk-soul” album, but were also influenced by contemporary R&B, particularly Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Not that anyone would ever mistake Idlewild for Control, but one can easily detect a hybrid of textures in the former: crisply strummed acoustics and tasty guitar licks are as vital to the album’s soundscape as keyboards and drum machines (which account for all percussion). Still, the arrangements are generally understated, exercising more restraint than you’d expect from the late ‘80s, a period when up-to-the-minute recording techniques left a heavy imprint on most pop.

That’s not to say parts of Idlewild aren’t exceedingly dated. With its electro-hum opening and gently clanging hi-hat drum pattern, “Goodbye Sunday” is nearly Jam/Lewis—admittedly catchy in its mid-tempo strut, but overwhelmingly one of EBTG’s more blatant stabs at radio airplay. “Tears All Over Town” also lays on the synthetics a bit too thick and ends up resembling an exceptionally lush bedroom demo more than a band-in-studio recording. Fortunately, other tracks make inspired use of such modern touches. “Love Is Here Where I Live” may open the album with an isolated mechanical drum track, but from there the song feels more organic, agreeably resembling musicians playing together in a room. “These Early Days” and “Blue Moon Rose” achieve a similar balance: keyboards and programmed rhythms provide up-tempo brightness and oomph, while such timeless elements as soulful organ and chiming guitars retain a human touch imperative in enabling these songs to fully connect and resonate. That’s certainly the case with “I Always Was Your Girl”, a delicate, melancholy tune made even lovelier (and more layered) by its unorthodox, insistently tapping drum pattern and cowbell that subtly appears on the later choruses, adding tension to both Thorn’s yearning vocal and all the dreamy, elongated guitar and keyboard lines on top.

Still, Idlewild is never better than when it distills things to the barest essentials (arguably, the same goes for EBTG’s output in general). “Shadow On A Harvest Moon” is primarily acoustic guitar-electric bass-drum machine, plus a few muted trumpet filigrees, but it’s as robust as any great Simon and Garfunkel song (it also most closely anticipates a rewarding direction EBTG will take a few albums later). “Apron Strings” leaves the drum machine behind, opting for a simple acoustic guitar and lone keyboard duet that effectively supports Thorn’s almost unbearably intimate vocal without ever distracting from it. The album’s most striking arrangement, however, is on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”, where Watt sings over nothing but an acoustic piano and possibly the least cheesy sax solo of the ‘80s. Such starkness draws extra attention to the lyric, where Watt assumes a character, a man in some undisclosed, war-torn country who is hesitant to bring a child into such a world. Then, the event relayed by the song’s title occurs; it thrills him like only the discovery of art can, offering him solace. Still, he concludes ominously, “But even as we speak / they’re loading bombs onto a white train / how can we afford to ever sleep / so sound again?” When wedded to such simplicity in the music, the pensive yet frank lyric gains in power.

And yet, I’ve spent nearly seven hundred words on Idlewild’s sound while only barely touching on its themes. It’s not uncommon for me to approach an album this way—I tend to respond to melodies, rhythms and arrangements over lyrics for their universal appeal. It follows that when I do notice and respond to the lyrics, their impact on me is naturally far greater, and they often recontextualize the music itself. If you were to isolate this album’s instrumental tracks, you’d end up with something that wouldn’t be too out of place on smooth jazz radio. You could say the same of later Steely Dan, although Thorn/Watt’s words are rarely as acidic or ironic as Fagen/Becker’s. Still, Idlewild’s lyrics contain more depth and vulnerability than its “everything’s fine” demeanor would suggest; it’s full of deceptively tranquil surfaces that act as conduits to far more complicated, occasionally darker places.

Most of the songs reference themes of domesticity: of childhood from one’s own perspective (“Oxford Street”) or that of a parent’s (“These Early Days”) or someone who longs to be a parent (“Apron Strings”) or is not sure he even wants to be one (“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”). Each scenario is careful not to solely slip into nostalgia or mere contentment; “These Early Days” may begin with the gentle observation, “You’re only two / the whole wide world revolves around you,” but follows it with the line, “And nothing’s happened yet that you may wish to ever forget.” Then comes the harsh truth: “It doesn’t stay that way / if I could, I’d make it stay that way.” Suddenly, what initially seems like a cheery song sung to a toddler takes on the weight of a mother wanting to always protect her child but very well knowing how impossible such a promise is.

Thorn also sings of relationships in various states: the faint but discernible malaise following a honeymoon (“Shadow On A Harvest Moon”), the fear of hitting a rough patch or retaining the stamina to make it through one (“Love Is Here Where I Live”) or a bittersweet assessment of a long-term union and how the outside world perceives it (“I Always Was Your Girl”). That last song tempers a potential (if heartfelt) cliché like “It will always be you and me against the world” with richer, more specific phrases such as “You put your friends through hell and that’s why we get along so well.” Elsewhere, among songs with a palpable longing for homes both past (“Oxford Street”) and present (“Lonesome For A Place I Know”), there’s “Blue Moon Rose”, an ode to friendship and platonic affection between two women. It’s a subject you’d expect to find more in pop songs and generally don’t, but any novelty is diminished by such applicable, thoughtful observations as, “I have a friend and she taught me daring / threw back the windows and let the air in.”

As much as Thorn and Watt sing of specifics, Idlewild’s greatest strength is in how relatable they appear. We’ve covered confessional songwriters all the way back to Joni Mitchell in this project, but with EBTG, there’s a directness that’s quite powerful when the music and the lyrics are as symbiotically effective as they are here. We’ll return to them a few years later on an album that nearly pushes that symbiosis to its breaking point, although as we will see, Tracey and Ben had to endure both musical and personal hells in order to get there.

Up next: an alternate-universe 1980s.

“I Always Was Your Girl”:

 

“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”: