Savvy songwriters can make even the edgiest music go pop. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain won the world’s ardor by distilling a decade’s worth of mangy underground American rock into an embraceable new sound. Madonna scored a doubleplatinum success by shaping the subterranean gay dance style known as ”sleaze” into 1990’s Erotica. And now Everything But The Girl stand poised to take the sounds best loved by today’s hipsters to Everymall U.S.A.
On Walking Wounded EBTG infuse the swank of neo-lounge music, the whir of ambient-dance, and the spaciness of trip-hop with the sweetest pop melodies these genres have ever encountered. The groundbreaking result seems at once abstract and immediate, untamed and accessible — Julie London updated to the age of Bjork.
Not that the group’s pop-friendly brand of lounge ranks as coldly opportunistic. No act has better earned the right to bring this music to the masses.
Fourteen years ago, this English duo first matched the cool elan of Peggy Lee (courtesy of singer Tracey Thorn) to the bossa nova beat of Burt Bacharach (via musician Ben Watt). Not since the Carpenters last nailed a hit in the mid-’70s had the pop world heard so exalted a sound. While bands like The Style Council and Swing Out Sister also mined marimba’d beats, none did so with the commitment, variety, and depth of EBTG. If their seven studio albums had twee and mannered moments, the group still managed to provide the broadest possible influence for today’s neo-lounge acts, from Portishead to Stereolab.
After years of attracting only the cognoscenti, EBTG finally cracked the pop charts this year when a house remix of their 1994 song ”Missing” became a surprise top 10 hit. With that encouragement, EBTG opted to set all of Walking Wounded’s 11 tracks to dance beats. Yet, in choosing beats more radical and complex than those featured on ”Missing,” they’ve created something far more unexpected and new.
For an aural blueprint, the duo clearly drew on two key recordings — both from U.K. trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack. Throughout Walking Wounded one can hear echoes of Thorn’s memorable cameo on the title track of Massive Attack’s last LP, Protection, and a 1995 collaboration between Massive and Madonna on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s ”I Want You.”
Expanding on those revolutionary records, Walking Wounded floats Thorn’s wan vocals over a soundscape of sputtering, hissing, and clacking beats. A clutch of eccentric rhythms turn up, from the funk rumblings of ”Single” to the ambient sway of ”Big Deal.” Watt’s sparse and spacious production lets all these sounds sparkle in air, creating a dizzying 3-D effect.
Watt also coaxes an incredible range of textures from his synthesizers — from the trampoline-bounce bass of the title track to the bedspring explosion of drums in ”Good Cop, Bad Cop.” Such sonic gymnastics comprise their own new subgenre in the U.K., called drum ‘n’ bass, a form whose celebrated ace, Spring Heel Jack, collaborated on some tracks here.
To help ground the sound, Watt and Thorn offer an array of gorgeous melodies. All undulate with a sensuality perfectly suited to Thorn’s burgundy voice. In her lilting style, Thorn recalls the sophistication of Dionne Warwick at her peak; she comes across as both haunted and aloof. By juxtaposing her woozy cadences with the brusque clatter of the beats, EBTG create a great counterpoint — the musical equivalent of manic depression.
This excited sense of melancholy fleshes out the group’s pining lyrics. Every song follows a ruinous love. ”I’m eating less and drinking more,” moans Thorn in a song that recalls the aftermath of a particularly bad affair. Another love proves painful enough to reduce her to childhood, causing the singer to plaintively ask, ”Is this as grown-up as we ever get?”
Coupled with the probing and pulsing music, these torchy sentiments achieve a psychological resonance, putting EBTG way above the campiness of most neo-lounge acts. In fact, their synthesized whooshes and bleats provide modern pop’s first corollary to the weird sounds cooked up by the early ’60s’ most avant-garde lounge stylists: Esquivel and Martin Denny.
By marrying such musical leaps to their sterling pop sensibilities, Everything But The Girl provide a classic service: They offer an ideal conduit between today’s chic underground and pop fans everywhere. A