Everything But The Girl, the professional and private partnership of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, has worked varying degrees of dishevelment over the years, from the ecstatic to the lukewarm, from luminous girl-pop to mawkish jazz-cocktail. They always looked killer and they did world hits like the skidding, anguished “Missing.” Extant in their fragmented, frustrated, ravishing discography, meanwhile, is the shape-shifting functionality true of every relationship worth a damn, romantic or otherwise. But anything about Everything But The Girl starts with Tracey Thorn’s voice: supple, weightless, easily bruised, it’s equally the perfect distillation of exquisite pain and a pretty severe weapon of crass destruction. She can bitch with it, she can moan with it. Fluctuating between hysteria and boredom atop Watt’s graceful analogs, Thorn filled dewy knickknacks like “Mirrorball” and “Piece Of My Mind” with all the artful ennui of beautifully slight short stories.
Out Of The Woods, Thorn’s aback, astringent solo album, finds her in a familiar dreamlogged state, knocking around in her own head and weeping at Piccadilly Station. “My head is my only house unless it rains,” she once declared on the Everything But The Girl song of the same name. On Out Of The Woods it’s “I’ll be waiting here/ `Til someone has a better idea” (“Easy”) and the previously alluded to “By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down And Wept” which locates the dread inside the usual swoon of the storied train-station rendezvous: “one minute you’re standing in the rain/ The air just seems to shiver and you’re never seen again.” Dance-pop priestess though she is/was, Thorn has always been a throwback, a textbook singer nearer the legacy of Patsy Cline, Peggy Lee, and Nico than any female vocalist of her generation. Add to that a twitching affinity for woozily adolescent emotional zones and for Sofia Coppola-like bedroom anthems for a teenage girl and you get the cover art, for instance, which pitches Thorn squarely amid hatboxes, a rocking horse, a grand piano, and various other mythic accoutrement, unmistakably identifying her as: a girl. Maybe even a girl standing in front of a boy. Which could be irritating shit, if it weren’t for that voice.
There’s a ruffled quality to Out Of The Woods, a carelessness to the track order. Ostensibly it’s deliberate. Leadoff track “Here It Comes Again” is a gorgeously sulking torch-type thing on which Thorn gets to ply her upper register. But it makes little sense at the top of the record. “Raise The Roof,” meanwhile, ends things on a perfunctorily positive note, which is great but makes for another odd placement. In between are fleeting, flirtatious songs, many of which invoke the same compare-and-contrast, show me yours/show you mine method that informed turnabout Everything But The Girl albums like “The Language Of Life” and “Idlewild.” It’s almost like the songs are vying for each other’s affection, not just yours.
Make no mistake, though. It may be a record long on batted eyelashes but in tracks like “A-Z,” “Grand Canyon” and the single “It’s All True,” “Out Of The Woods” doesn’t lack for a particular clubland credential. Tom ‘Cagedbaby’ Gandey produced the towering synths in “A-Z,” filtering Thorn’s vocal thru ice-encrusted caverns. “Grand Canyon,” with its touch of minimal house, floats like a throbbing Junior Boys echo as Thorn sings “look at this gap that’s opened up” and later repeats the line “everybody loves you here” the correct number of times to make you doubt every word of it. Meanwhile the clacking, effervescent “It’s All True” might be the most Everything But The Girl-like moment; that distinction could go in equal measure, ironically, to the record’s sole cover, of avant-garde cellist Arthur Russell’s “Get Around To It,” which has a dingy, agreeable low-dub element plus wonkily great saxophone by Gabe of The Rapture. Everything But The Girl is on hiatus indefinitely, but “some things never seem to change,” as Thorn herself admits on “A-Z.” “Kids still call each other names.” Whatever you say, Tracey. Sing, baby, sing.
Nico – Chelsea Girl
Bjork – Post
Hooverphonic – The Magnificent Tree