When I consider Ben Watt, I must admit that I don’t normally consider the recordings he has released under his own name. Watt has recorded numerous albums as Everything But the Girl with his partner of some 30 years, Tracey Thorn, and that is what I drew on when Watt’s second solo album Hendra arrived a couple months back. I have long admired EBTG having been first exposed to them when a colleague at ROW Entertainment in Edmonton played their first couple albums over the store’s sound system in a seemingly non-stop loop.
I know I didn’t appreciate those early recordings- including the self-titled album and Love Not Money– nearly as much then in the mid-80s as I do now; there was just so much other music to discover each week, I never committed to their gentle sounds the way I could have. My interest in EBTG was piqued when my spouse discovered “Missing” a decade later, and that gave me an excuse to explore their music in more depth, and they have since become a group that- if not a constant in my Top 100 and on my iPhone, are always appreciated when I pull a disc off the shelf for a play.
What I remember only a bit better from those days in West Edmonton Mall was the brilliant Tracey Thorn album A Distant Shore and- to a lesser degree- Watt’s e.p. Summer Into Winter. What grabbed me about these recordings was how unusual they sounded at a time of synthesized dance grooves (Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, Laid Back, Howard Jones, et al) and corporate shlock for gorbs (Phil Collins, Asia, Wang Chung, Footloose and Flashdance), when the last thing on many minds was ‘contemporary folk music.’ Certainly I wasn’t thinking about folk music when I heard their music, but these brief recordings really grabbed my attention for a few weeks sometime in 1984 or ’85, and A Distant Shore is a recording I haven’t been without since. In hindsight, those early ETBG and ETBG-related albums, singles, and e.p.s have more connection to folk music than anything else that was going on at the time.
If I recall correctly, Summer Into Winter was a sparse e.p. unadorned by floss and gloss, but which still had some lovely and catchy singalong bits- “Skipping Slowly” has stayed with me. [As I typed this, I decided to download North Marine Drive, Watt’s debut recording that comes accompanied by the five songs from Summer Into Winter. They are as good as I remember.] I don’t recall having heard North Marine Drive in the record store, but I must have- the cover looks very familiar, and I can’t imagine Tony played the other recordings and missed that one.
I am not familiar with Watt’s work as a DJ.
What has all the above got to do with Roots Music? The early solo recordings and the EBTG albums had a lot to do with folk music performed in a modern manner- stripped down, sparse instrumentation that seldom intruded, dreamy or at least inspiring lyrics with obvious production choices that placed emphasis on the voice. Along with Billy Bragg’s very first recordings, these albums and extended singles made me better understand the limits I had placed on my listening: things started to open up at that time, and I was soon playing Richard Thompson, Joan Baez, and The Blasters as frequently as Dwight Yoakam, Violent Femmes, and Skinny Puppy. Doc Watson, Emmylou, and bluegrass weren’t far behind once I realized that there was music- and enjoyment- beyond The Who, Springsteen, Bananarama, and Haysi Fantayzee.
With Watt’s Hendra having become a regular fixture in my home these past two months, I thought it was past time that I focused some attention on it here at Fervor Coulee.
It is an entirely enjoyable recording, as much singer-songwriter and folk as it is electronic. The album starts off with the charming title track (“These rooms are cold but heavenly, and the sun is shining; You know what they say about silver and lining”) and doesn’t let up for its full 45 minutes. The songs are dripping with dramatic phrases and unflinching expressions of sincerity, some of which I glean, others go well over my head. But they all sound beautiful.
At times the album reminds me a bit of Dire Straits (“Forget,” “Young Man’s Game”), while other songs are very EBTG in their construction (“Spring,” “The Gun.”) It is “Spring” that I put forth as this week’s Roots Song of the Week.
“Spring” doesn’t have an overly complex construction, but the combination of Watt’s piano and Bernard Butler’s electric guitar (from Suede, I’m told. I missed most of the music out of England from 1990-2002, so I’m not familiar) draws me in. Quite hypnotic- and I did notice a couple weeks back driving for several seconds without being aware of where I was- this is the song that was playing at the time. I quite like the poetic nature of the words- they allow my brain to drift a little and imagine a bit more- again, not good when you’re driving: never know when an elk will saunter into your path.
Give it a listen and see if it appeals- it is always good to get out of one’s comfort zone, so perhaps this will do it for you.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald