This was Tracey Thorn’s and Ben Watt’s first recording together, released just before their respective debut solo LPs – still following the paths they were on before they met – and right from the off you could hear how the talent of each complemented the other. They were so obviously right for one another. The parallels and chance that brought them together are uncanny. Both befriended by Mike Alway and signed to Cherry Red. Starting at the same university up north at the same time. Living three doors apart, attending the same lectures. If ever destiny has been at work, it was surely working on them.
Thirty years later, set the needle to the groove or click play, shut your eyes and blind-audition that voice, as if hearing it for the first time. It’s unique. A one-off. Though unusual, it has a natural grain. At one and the same time, it’s smoky and clear. It carries a weight of tremulous emotion without any straining for effect. You’d hit your judge’s button and turn your chair around for it within moments of the singer’s mouth opening. Or maybe you wouldn’t – some say it’s a Marmite voice, but for me, it’s hard to imagine not being moved by it.
At first, both Ben and Tracey sang, as they do on this record. Tracey is the night, dark and thick and luxuriant in its melancholy; Ben is the day, dry and reedy and leaning towards the sun. I always liked his voice – compare how each of them sang ‘Easy as sin’ (twice a B side) and you’d have to say Ben’s version isn’t far off Tracey’s in terms of performance. I wish he had sung more over the years. But when your other half has a voice like Tracey’s, it’s not surprising that you concentrate on playing, arranging, orchestrating.
Thirty years ago, at the tail end of post-punk and the inception of new romantic pop, the pair went along with Mike Alway’s choice of a Cole Porter standard over compositions of their own for their first A side. On it Ben Watt plays only jazz guitar, his father’s son. They couldn’t have been more out of time if they tried, and yet as Tracey’s Bedsit disco queen memoir reveals, this too was the influence of punk at work, of defining yourself in opposition to something, and of determining your own way of going about things (while taking on board the odd shrewd piece of advice from a would-be svengali). What is far less surprising in the light of the songs they went on to craft themselves is that Tracey and Ben were drawn to such a polished songwriting jewel. As Everything But The Girl, they would prove themselves adept at drawing on personal experience and mixing it with Brill Building story-telling, albeit updated to suit tales retrieved from the nooks and crannies of 1980s Britain. And give or take Ben’s odd turns, all sung in that utterly unique and instantly recognisable voice.
Hoist on my own petard. Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last. It follows that if you call a blog post ‘Something old’, one entitled ‘Something new’ should appear relatively hot on its heels. But I’m really struggling to identify something that (a) I want to tell you about, and (b) is worth telling you about. I make lists of music that I read about and would like to hear and then for a variety of reasons never quite manage to find the time to listen, even if I’ve got as far as downloading the odd tester song. And of the new releases that I do get my ears around, well, you don’t want to hear any more about the National, or She & Him, or Deutsche elektronische musik, or even Tracey Thorn. Though perhaps I can quickly say how much more emotionally engaging a set Love and its opposite is in comparison with Out of the woods (on which Tracey’s moods are lost in the production) and how the accompanying and largely acoustic Berlin demos put you nostalgically in mind of A distant shore and establish a thread across 28 years, a connection bypassing the highs and lows of Everything But The Girl. (There – tricked myself into writing about something new.)
Maybe this is why it’s still more or less true to say that pop music is a young person’s game. Us older folk just can’t stay the pace. Or don’t have the time to. Or both. And for better or worse we know what we like. But still I’ll keep trying to find something that generates that feeling of newness, of discovery, of a new angle on an old form, or at the very least a strong recasting of a familiar approach. And you’ll be pleased to hear that I think I’m ok for ‘Something borrowed’ and ‘Something blue’, and that – oddly enough – these may well double up as ‘Something new’s too.