Everything But The Girl, IDLEWILD


(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #25 – released February 1988)

Track listing*: Love Is Here Where I Live / These Early Days / I Always Was Your Girl / Oxford Street / The Night I Heard Caruso Sing / Goodbye Sunday / Shadow On A Harvest Moon / Blue Moon Rose / Tears All Over Town / Lonesome For A Place I Know / Apron Strings

(*Many copies begin with a cover of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, which was tacked on after it became a big UK hit four months after the album’s release. Since the band reverted to the original track listing on the 2012 Edsel reissue, I’ve done the same here.)

The band name of longtime musical and life partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, Everything But The Girl defies simple categorization if you scan through its discography. Jazzy and primarily acoustic, Eden (1984) neatly fits into the UK sophisti-pop movement of that period, but the jangly, guitar-heavy Love Not Money (1985) is far more driven by love for The Smiths than Stan Getz. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (1986) mostly eschews six-strings for a full orchestra in an attempt to replicate classic Dionne Warwick as produced by Burt Bacharach. The only constant among these first three albums is Thorn’s low, somewhat reticent tone (along with Watt’s pleasant, if less distinctive occasional vocals)—and she came from a DIY/punk-influenced background as a member of The Marine Girls (he was the one who loved jazz).

Album number four, Idlewild deliberately backs away from the previous record’s opulence—it’s as stripped-down as Eden, but definitely more contemporary pop than jazz, and decidedly more mature (unusually so given that its creators were only in their mid-20’s). Thorn and Watt claimed they set out to make a “folk-soul” album, but were also influenced by contemporary R&B, particularly Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Not that anyone would ever mistake Idlewild for Control, but one can easily detect a hybrid of textures in the former: crisply strummed acoustics and tasty guitar licks are as vital to the album’s soundscape as keyboards and drum machines (which account for all percussion). Still, the arrangements are generally understated, exercising more restraint than you’d expect from the late ‘80s, a period when up-to-the-minute recording techniques left a heavy imprint on most pop.

That’s not to say parts of Idlewild aren’t exceedingly dated. With its electro-hum opening and gently clanging hi-hat drum pattern, “Goodbye Sunday” is nearly Jam/Lewis—admittedly catchy in its mid-tempo strut, but overwhelmingly one of EBTG’s more blatant stabs at radio airplay. “Tears All Over Town” also lays on the synthetics a bit too thick and ends up resembling an exceptionally lush bedroom demo more than a band-in-studio recording. Fortunately, other tracks make inspired use of such modern touches. “Love Is Here Where I Live” may open the album with an isolated mechanical drum track, but from there the song feels more organic, agreeably resembling musicians playing together in a room. “These Early Days” and “Blue Moon Rose” achieve a similar balance: keyboards and programmed rhythms provide up-tempo brightness and oomph, while such timeless elements as soulful organ and chiming guitars retain a human touch imperative in enabling these songs to fully connect and resonate. That’s certainly the case with “I Always Was Your Girl”, a delicate, melancholy tune made even lovelier (and more layered) by its unorthodox, insistently tapping drum pattern and cowbell that subtly appears on the later choruses, adding tension to both Thorn’s yearning vocal and all the dreamy, elongated guitar and keyboard lines on top.

Still, Idlewild is never better than when it distills things to the barest essentials (arguably, the same goes for EBTG’s output in general). “Shadow On A Harvest Moon” is primarily acoustic guitar-electric bass-drum machine, plus a few muted trumpet filigrees, but it’s as robust as any great Simon and Garfunkel song (it also most closely anticipates a rewarding direction EBTG will take a few albums later). “Apron Strings” leaves the drum machine behind, opting for a simple acoustic guitar and lone keyboard duet that effectively supports Thorn’s almost unbearably intimate vocal without ever distracting from it. The album’s most striking arrangement, however, is on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”, where Watt sings over nothing but an acoustic piano and possibly the least cheesy sax solo of the ‘80s. Such starkness draws extra attention to the lyric, where Watt assumes a character, a man in some undisclosed, war-torn country who is hesitant to bring a child into such a world. Then, the event relayed by the song’s title occurs; it thrills him like only the discovery of art can, offering him solace. Still, he concludes ominously, “But even as we speak / they’re loading bombs onto a white train / how can we afford to ever sleep / so sound again?” When wedded to such simplicity in the music, the pensive yet frank lyric gains in power.

And yet, I’ve spent nearly seven hundred words on Idlewild’s sound while only barely touching on its themes. It’s not uncommon for me to approach an album this way—I tend to respond to melodies, rhythms and arrangements over lyrics for their universal appeal. It follows that when I do notice and respond to the lyrics, their impact on me is naturally far greater, and they often recontextualize the music itself. If you were to isolate this album’s instrumental tracks, you’d end up with something that wouldn’t be too out of place on smooth jazz radio. You could say the same of later Steely Dan, although Thorn/Watt’s words are rarely as acidic or ironic as Fagen/Becker’s. Still, Idlewild’s lyrics contain more depth and vulnerability than its “everything’s fine” demeanor would suggest; it’s full of deceptively tranquil surfaces that act as conduits to far more complicated, occasionally darker places.

Most of the songs reference themes of domesticity: of childhood from one’s own perspective (“Oxford Street”) or that of a parent’s (“These Early Days”) or someone who longs to be a parent (“Apron Strings”) or is not sure he even wants to be one (“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”). Each scenario is careful not to solely slip into nostalgia or mere contentment; “These Early Days” may begin with the gentle observation, “You’re only two / the whole wide world revolves around you,” but follows it with the line, “And nothing’s happened yet that you may wish to ever forget.” Then comes the harsh truth: “It doesn’t stay that way / if I could, I’d make it stay that way.” Suddenly, what initially seems like a cheery song sung to a toddler takes on the weight of a mother wanting to always protect her child but very well knowing how impossible such a promise is.

Thorn also sings of relationships in various states: the faint but discernible malaise following a honeymoon (“Shadow On A Harvest Moon”), the fear of hitting a rough patch or retaining the stamina to make it through one (“Love Is Here Where I Live”) or a bittersweet assessment of a long-term union and how the outside world perceives it (“I Always Was Your Girl”). That last song tempers a potential (if heartfelt) cliché like “It will always be you and me against the world” with richer, more specific phrases such as “You put your friends through hell and that’s why we get along so well.” Elsewhere, among songs with a palpable longing for homes both past (“Oxford Street”) and present (“Lonesome For A Place I Know”), there’s “Blue Moon Rose”, an ode to friendship and platonic affection between two women. It’s a subject you’d expect to find more in pop songs and generally don’t, but any novelty is diminished by such applicable, thoughtful observations as, “I have a friend and she taught me daring / threw back the windows and let the air in.”

As much as Thorn and Watt sing of specifics, Idlewild’s greatest strength is in how relatable they appear. We’ve covered confessional songwriters all the way back to Joni Mitchell in this project, but with EBTG, there’s a directness that’s quite powerful when the music and the lyrics are as symbiotically effective as they are here. We’ll return to them a few years later on an album that nearly pushes that symbiosis to its breaking point, although as we will see, Tracey and Ben had to endure both musical and personal hells in order to get there.

Up next: an alternate-universe 1980s.

“I Always Was Your Girl”:

“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”:

Best Albums of 2014: # 17, 16, 15



Laborious title aside, this is nearly as good as BEAUTY AND CRIME from 2007, which is the least one should expect since it’s her first collection of new material since then. What’s unexpected is how well “Fool’s Complaint” would’ve fit on any of her first three albums, or the Macklemore reference she sneaks in to “Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain” or “I Never Wear White”, arguably the first all-out rocker of her 30-year career and a convincing one at that. Let her take another 5+ years to make another album if it replicates the quality control present here.

Favorite tracks: “Fool’s Complaint”, “I Never Wear White”, “Horizon (There Is A Road)”

BEN WATT hendra space 2

16. Ben Watt – HENDRA

Given wife Tracy Thorn’s solo renaissance, it seems inevitable Watt would follow with his own album—his first since 1982’s pre-Everything But The Girl NORTH MARINE DRIVE. Closer in vein to that record than the electronic dance music he’s dabbled in since the late ‘90s, HENDRA casts Watt in the role of middle-aged troubadour, similar to the persona Thorn inhabited on LOVE AND ITS OPPOSITE. These ten reflective, mostly stripped-down songs concern such universalities as memory (the sublime “Forget”) and aging (“Young Man’s Game”). And although Thorn was EBTG’s primary vocalist, it’s simply great to hear Watt sing (and play guitar) again.

Favorite tracks: “Forget”, “Spring”, “Young Man’s Game”

the both

15. The Both – THE BOTH

Two of my favorite musicians (Aimee Mann and Ted Leo) make up this duo and the lead single is named after my hometown (“Milwaukee”) so the whole effort would have to suck considerably for me to hate it. And though it’s not the best thing either artist has ever done, it’s the most enjoyable album either has released in some time. Even more impressive, it’s a perfect melding of two sensibilities that pays dividends: Leo encourages Mann to convincingly rock like she hasn’t since I’M WITH STUPID, while Mann inspires a melodic drive and focus from Leo that hasn’t been so tight since SHAKE THE SHEETS. It all sounds like the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Favorite tracks: “Milwaukee”, “Volunteers of America”, “The Prisoner”

2013 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

one summer

Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927
After covering everywhere from the Appalachian Trail to Australia, Bryson developed a reputation as a travel writer; his latest, a riveting account of America in the Jazz age structured around a particularly eventful five months could establish him as a great historian should he choose to cover other notable periods of the recent past.

art of fielding

Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding
My favorite novel of the year and one of the best debuts I’ve read. Even if you don’t care one whit about baseball, Harbach’s tale of a young shortstop prodigy at a small fictional Wisconsin college is compelling and worthy of prime John Irving, packed with richly drawn, cliché-free characters and multiple narrative strands that beautifully coalesce.

music for torching

A.M. Homes – Music For Torching
I’ve wanted to read this author for years, and a friend suggested this as a good starting point. I enjoy books where, after the first chapter I can’t even begin to predict where the story will go; here, a family’s impulsive decision to burn down their suburban home one evening sets off a chain of events, each one more outrageous than the last, and yet, all of them convincing.

difficult men

Brett Martin – Difficult Men
The most compulsively readable pop culture tome since Pictures At A Revolution, Martin’s overview of TV’s latest golden age parallels the anti-hero archetype (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) with their at-times equally tyrannical creators (David Chase, Matthew Weiner) and in process, legitimizes the whole genre.

dear life

Alice Munro – Dear Life
All of this recent, deserved Nobel Prize winner’s short story collections are worth a read; if this one proves to be her last, so be it. Munro’s one of the rare authors who has continually honed and arguably improved her craft and these stories bespeak wisdom and an almost effortless agility, especially the reportedly autobiographical pieces she goes out on.

rin tin tin

Susan Orlean – Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend
Orlean has always had a knack for inserting herself within a real-life narrative; her latest is her most affecting sustained attempt at this. As she delivers a definitive history of the titular canine celebrity, she eloquently depicts how its legend has fit into and informed her own life and it serves rather than distracts from the biography.


Richard Russo – Elsewhere: A Memoir
Russo’s first full-length work of nonfiction is as entertaining as any of his novels, which themselves are often influenced by where he has lived and worked; however, he arguably has yet to come up with a character as memorable (and irascible) as the real “star” of his memoir, his (now deceased) mother.

where'd you go b

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Semple formerly wrote for the TV series Arrested Development, which should give you a keen sense of the zany, intelligent humor of her second novel. Creatively designed as a series of e-mails, diary entries, articles and other epistolary devices, Semple effectively satirizes middle-class family life as well as Homes, but with a far more affectionate slant.

yeah yeah yeah

Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
Stanley, a co-founder of the band Saint Etienne has had a second career as a music journalist; this 750-page, chronological history of four decades of pop music reads like both the work of a serious critic and an unabashed music fan and could be the genre equivalent of Mark Cousins’ great The Story of Film: An Odyssey. A seemingly condensed American edition is scheduled to come out this July; go for the original British paperback version.

disco bedsit queen

Tracey Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen
From reading her excellent Twitter feed, I eagerly anticipated Thorn’s memoir and it did not disappoint. Whether writing about being a young feminist punk, lead singer of the sophisti-pop duo Everything But The Girl (with husband Ben Watt) or eschewing the life of a pop star for motherhood and eventually returning as a solo artist, she’s full of insight, good humor and perspective on the unconventional path she and Watt took.

My complete 2013 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Jane Lynch – Happy Accidents
2. Mark Haddon – The Red House
3. Alvin Buenaventura (ed.) – The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist
4. Susan Orlean – Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend
5. Julie Klausner – I Don’t Care About Your Band
6. Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding
7. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Pulphead
8. Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad – See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
9. Yael Kohen – We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy
10. Dave Eggers – A Hologram For The King
11. Alan Bennett – Writing Home
12. Jennifer Bass with Pat Kirkham – Saul Bass: A Life In Art and Design
13. Alice Munro – Dear Life
14. Rachel Dratch – Girl Walks Into A Bar
15. Bill Bryson – In A Sunburned Country*
16. Peter Heller – The Dog Stars
17. David Sedaris – Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
18. Tracey Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen
19. Jon Breakfield – Key West
20. Don DeLillo – Underworld
21. Margaux Fragoso – Tiger, Tiger
22. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong – Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted
23. Eugene B. Bergmann – Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd*
24. Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
25. Ernest Cline – Ready Player One
26. Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle*
27. Richard Russo – Elsewhere: A Memoir
28. Haruki Murakami – After The Quake
29. A.M. Homes – Music For Torching
30. Nathan Rabin – You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me
31. Bill Carter – The Late Shift
32. Ellen Forney – Marbles
33. Carson McCullers – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter*
34. Rob Sheffield – Turn Around Bright Eyes
35. David Rakoff – Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel
36. Richard Brautigan – In Watermelon Sugar
37. Elisabeth Vincentelli – ABBA Gold (33 1/3 series)*
38. Junot Diaz – This Is How You Lose Her
39. Craig Thompson – Habibi
40. Chuck Klosterman – I Wear The Black Hat
41. Ingmar Bergman – Images: My Life in Film
42. Jonathan Lethem – Dissident Gardens
43. Joe Boyd – White Bicycles
44. David Byrne – How Music Works
45. Alyn Shipton – Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter
46. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
47. Brett Martin – Difficult Men
48. Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
49. Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927
50. Darran Anderson – Historie de Melody Nelson (33 1/3 series)
51. Paul Murray – An Evening Of Long Goodbyes
52. David Sedaris – Barrel Fever*
53. Rob Delaney – Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
54. Jean Shepherd – Shep’s Army

Everything But the Girl, “These Early Days”

This year, one of my birthday gifts was the expanded reissue of Everything But the Girl’s fourth album, Idlewild, which coincidentally was released 25 years ago last month. It’s my second favorite EBTG record after Amplified Heart and one that seems mostly forgotten, given that it came out before their U.S. breakthrough with “Driving” and later, “Missing”.

Unlike the timeless, jazzy stripped-down pop on Amplified Heart, some of the production here sounds a little dated, but the songs, which are intimate, understated, and centered on longing and reflection continue to resonate (especially as I inch closer to 40). The Ben Watt-sung “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” is still one of my top 5 EBTG songs, but the single “These Early Days” is more indicative of the whole album–it hits that sweet spot combining reassuring warmth with wistful melancholia. Glenn McDonald put it best when he deemed Idlewild “the perfect album for quiet pastel Sunday afternoons.”

My Favorite Music of 2012


Martha Wainwright

The Best Tracks of 2012 in two Spotify playlists:

Volume 1: Someone Who Looks Smashing In Athletic Wear

1. Saint Etienne, “Tonight” / 2. Tanlines, “All Of Me” / 3. The Magnetic Fields, “Andrew In Drag” / 4. Diamond Rings, “Runaway Love” / 5. Stars, “Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It” / 6. Jens Lekman, “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” / 7. Jessie Ware, “Wildest Moments” / 8. Of Monsters And Men, “Mountain Sound” / 9. Hot Chip, “Let Me Be Him” / 10. Rufus Wainwright, “Bitter Tears” / 11. Sinead O’Connor, “Queen Of Denmark” / 12. The Ting Tings, “Guggenheim” / 13. Aimee Mann, “Labrador” / 14. Imperial Teen, “Out From Inside” / 15. Miike Snow, “The Wave” / 16. Twin Shadow, “Run My Heart” / 17. Martha Wainwright, “Proserpina” / 18. Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife” / 19. A.C. Newman, “They Should Have Shut Down The Streets”

Volume 2: You Enjoy Sucking On Dreams

1. Metric, “The Void” / 2. Calexico, “Splitter” / 3. Sharon Van Etten, “Serpents” / 4. Regina Spektor, “All The Rowboat” / 5. Dr. John, “Revolution” / 6. The Gaslight Anthem, “Here Comes My Man” / 7. Deep Sea Arcade, “Girls” / 8. Keane, “On The Road” / 9. Bat For Lashes, “Laura” / 10. The xx, “Chained” / 11. Emm Gryner, “She’s Gone” / 12. Paul Brill, “Breezy” / 13. Patti Smith, “April Fool” / 14. Andrew Bird, “Lusitania” / 15. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes, “Man On Fire” / 16. The Shins, “No Way Down” / 17. Ben Folds Five, “Away When You Were Here” / 18. A Fine Frenzy, “Now Is The Start” / 19. Goldfrapp, “Melancholy Sky” / 20. Field Music, “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing” / 21. Beth Orton, “Mystery”

Top Ten Albums:

1. Jens Lekman – I KNOW WHAT LOVE ISN’T
2. Fiona Apple – THE IDLER WHEEL…
4. Hot Chip – IN OUR HEADS
5. Rufus Wainwright – OUT OF THE GAME
6. Martha Wainwright – COME HOME TO MAMA
8. Imperial Teen – FEEL THE SOUND
9. Stars – THE NORTH
10. Jessie Ware – DEVOTION

Also Recommended:

Often, I struggle to find enough worthy albums to fill out a top ten. This year, I could have easily done a top 15. Here are a few worthy candidates, along with favorite tracks in parentheses.

Far more focused than his second solo album, slightly less convincing than his first, and preferable to the last two New Pornographers records. (“They Should Have Shut Down The Streets”, “Hostages”, “You Could Get Lost Out Here”)

After seeing him perform most of this material in concert two years ago, I diagnose him with a case of Ani DiFranco Syndrome—the studio recordings can’t quite match the live renditions, but at least he cut out the filler that marred Noble Beast. (“Lusitania”, “Eyeoneye”, “Near Death Experience Experience”)

Bat For Lashes – THE HAUNTED MAN
She’s an artist in transition, still finding her voice. For all the studio wizardry on display here, she’s most effective when she places her vocals and melodies front-and-center. (“Laura”, “All Your Gold”)

Ever confident and insanely catchy, but it breaks little new ground. Nonetheless, a solid follow-up to Fantasies so competent that grumpy old man Lou Reed doesn’t even embarrass himself in a cameo. (“The Void”, “Clone”, “Breathing Underwater”)

Miike Snow – HAPPY TO YOU
A strange but not unbecoming mixture of top 40 dance music with an indie rock sensibility: martial drum rolls, house music pianos and campfire whistling never sounded so good together. (“The Wave”, “Paddling Out”, “Bavarian # 1 (Say You Will)”)

Patti Smith – BANGA
She must have got something out of her system with that awful documentary about her from a few years back (or perhaps you can just blame its director); in her stunning memoir and now this, she’s rarely projected so much lucidity and warmth. (“April Fool”, “This Is The Girl”)

Still a perpetual Hot Mess, but better that than a boring one. Easily her best since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, “Queen of Denmark” proves her gift for interpretation hasn’t diminished. (“The Wolf Is Getting Married”, “Queen of Denmark”, “Reason With Me”)

After only a few spins, it’s now my favorite modern Christmas album and a testament to her continued relevance that the two originals are highlights. (“Tinsel and Lights”, “Joy”, “Taking Down The Tree”)