Amplified Heart (Atlantic ’94) Rating: A-
Though a few songs here can be classified as “pretty but uneventful,” most of Amplified Heart is breathtakingly melodic and beautiful. Led by the sultry vocals of Tracy Thorn, this somber album paints vivid scenes of romantic longing and confusion. Ben Watt constructs the seductively sparse musical settings, and he’s also a fine singer himself who is showcased effectively on the desperate “Walking To You” and “25th December” (the lonely latter track featuring the great Richard Thompson guesting on guitar). Other evocative and catchy highlights are “Rollercoaster,” “Troubled Mind,” and “Get Me,” while “We Walk The Same Line” is a rare pledge of devotion on an album of sad relationship songs. However, the real showstopper here is the devastatingly sad “Missing,” which later became a hit single when it was remixed by Todd Terry. For the record, I much prefer this version, which has a haunted emptiness that the other one doesn’t quite capture, though Terry’s more danceable version foreshadowed the sound that Everything But The Girl (EBTG) would further explore on Walking Wounded. With Watt having overcome Churg-Strauss Syndrome, which required four operations and had him near death, and with Thorn’s recent work with Massive Attack having increased the duo’s profile, EBTG emerged triumphant with their finest release.
Walking Wounded (Atlantic ’96) Rating: B+
For a couple who have survived and persevered together for over 15 years (despite some serious, life threatening obstacles), Ben Watt and Tracy Thorn sure have prescient feelings about lost love. Now, I’m not going to get into psychoanalyzing their personal relationship, but I will say that such strong feelings of longing and loss makes for good music. But enough about the lyrics, which are generally simple and to the point (and a little too repetitive). It's the music here that’s changed considerably, as Everything But The Girl fully embrace dance beats and rely much more on electronics than previously. Critics used buzz words like “drum n’ bass” and “trip-hop” to describe the duo's new sound, but what hasn’t changed is that Walking Wounded is still mellow, atmospherically inclined, highly sophisticated adult-oriented pop music. After all, despite the programmed dance beats, some of which seem uncomfortably grafted onto the music, few of these generally slow and somewhat homogenous sounding songs really make for good dance music. Instead, this is music that makes you think and feel but with good beats to boot.
Temperamental (Atlantic ’99) Rating: B+
Everything But The Girl gets more dance oriented with each recent release, but they imbue their material with far more warmth than is customary within their chosen style. Led by Tracy Thorn’s beautiful, cooing voice, which carries with it an undeniable undercurrent of sadness, Everything But The Girl have come up with another consistently sophisticated yet easy going album on Temperamental. Aside from some redundant dance beats and a repetitive instrumental (“Compression”), most of this album is highly effective, though as usual it relies more on enticing atmospherics than excitement to lure in listeners. It’s not hard to think of Everything But The Girl as a more dance oriented (and not quite as sexy) Sade, but Everything But The Girl’s lyrics also generally pack more of an emotional punch (isolation seems to be this album’s primary theme). Musically, Ben Watt’s inventive programming and deftly layered instrumental colorings are simple yet lush, and though there’s no song as strong as “Missing” here, the duo continue to refine their studious craft. Everything But The Girl may never surprise me again, but they don’t ever disappoint me, either, and Temperamental, which contains an equal dosage of upbeat dance songs and mellow ballads, was yet another understated winner.