In music and message, the beat goes on Music: Contrasting the smooth voice of Tracey Thorn with the steady rhythm of drums, gives Everything But the Girl the sound Ben Watt is trying to achieve.

August 03, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When the title tune from Everything But the Girl's new album, "Walking Wounded," was about to make its British radio debut, Ben Watt -- the group's chief composer and multi-instrumentalist -- was a bit concerned about how it would go over.

But he wasn't fretting what the fans would think. He was concerned about his 70-year-old mum.

"I said, 'Look, it's going to be on tonight if you want to hear it. I don't know what you're going to make of it, but tune in,"' Watt recalls.

"She listened to it, and called me up when it was over. She said to me that she hadn't really understood what was going on rhythmically, but she had felt that it was incredibly emotionally gripping. I thought that was brilliant coming from her. She didn't need the semantics to describe it, and I thought that was great."

Still, it's easy to understand why Watt would worry. Ever since he and Tracey Thorn first formed the group in 1982, Everything But the Girl (EBTG) was celebrated for the softness and sophistication of its sound. Where other English alternarockers favored loud guitars and simple harmonies, EBTG stressed acoustic instruments and jazz chords, going for a sound that was somewhere between modern folk and '60s samba.

By contrast, "Walking Wounded" draws its inspiration from the synth-and-drum machine sound of contemporary club styles like jungle and drum-and-bass. It's not a dance record per se, although a pumped-up remix of "Wrong" had considerable success in that arena earlier this year, but neither is it a typical EBTG album.

And that's exactly what Watt wanted.

"For me, we are at our best when there is something to contrast those natural, smooth sounds that come out of us normally," he says.

"That fluid, languid thing; the sound of Tracey's voice, the way that I hear melodies. You have to give it a contrasting extreme to give it attention, and I think on our worst records, those kinds of extremes have been lacking. It meant our records have often become too mellow and there's no kind of grip."

There's definitely a sense of contrast to the songs on "Walking Wounded," though. When heard in these arrangements, Thorn's bruised plum of a voice seems all the more affecting against the coolly percolating synths and buzzing, metallic break beats.

As Watt says, "she almost sounds more human because of the kind of landscapes she's set against.

"I found when I was programming the album that I could make the beats as hard as I liked, and in some cases the sounds as extreme as I wanted," he continues.

"Like some of those drum sounds right at the beginning of 'Good Cop Bad Cop,' where they almost sound like bedsprings exploding out of the speakers. Each time Tracey comes in, it's like the camera fixes focus on her again, and it's this voice of a real person amidst this neurotic landscape of noise.

"It was something we'd never done before, and I found it really exciting to do."

Doing it live, however, posed quite a challenge for the group -- particularly given the disparity between the sound of these new songs and that of the back catalog.

"It was really important, conceptually, when we sat down to plan the tour, to be able to perform both the past and present within the same band," says Watt.

"I didn't want to jettison the past and just program up a dance-heavy tour. So we tried to dream up a really interesting way of doing it, and we came up with the idea of a futuristic beat combo, where on paper it was just like a four-piece band, but it had the flexibility to do a lot of different styles."

Watt is enormously happy with the way the live version of the new songs work onstage, but he admits to being puzzled by the reaction of some fans to the album. "People ask, 'Why does it have such a depressing title?' " he says. "I say, 'It's not called "The Dead." '

"The characters within these songs are survivors," he adds, pointing out that tragedy, be it breaking up, losing a parent or suffering a debilitating illness, is something most people go through. "But we get up every morning, get on the bus, and we go to work. We just deal with life in all its mundanity.

"That's kind of what the record's about," he concludes. "These screams of despair, that some of the songs are, are simply that. It's like an exorcism of emotion, and then you still get on and carry on. And I'd like to think that even amongst the despair, there's an energy, a progress toward something better. And that's what I mean by optimistic."


When: 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow and Monday

Where: The New 9: 30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., Washington

Tickets: $20 (tomorrow sold out)

$ Call: (410) 481-6500

To hear excerpts from Everything But the Girl's new release, "Walking Wounded," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6127. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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