Magazine article The New Yorker

Everything but the Tour

Magazine article The New Yorker

Everything but the Tour

Article excerpt

The widely reported demise of the music business isn't necessarily going to be bad for music. The forty-seven-year-old British singer Tracey Thorn, who has removed herself from a race she once ran--and ran well--has added a fantastic album, "Love and Its Opposite," to her solo catalogue. Both the album's themes and how it was made suggest a model that may become increasingly popular: the semi-professional musician. Making music as a pastime has appealed to talents as diverse as the modernist composer Charles Ives and the post-punk engineer and guitarist Steve Albini. If hits are to be had by only the very few, perhaps more musicians will feel free to stop worrying about making them.

Thorn will not tour for "Love and Its Opposite," and she didn't tour for "Out of the Woods" (2007), her second solo release. (Her first was a 1982 EP called "A Distant Shore.") With the collapse of album sales, touring is one of the few dependable sources of income for artists; Thorn's decision not to do it suggests that she is taking a hobbyist's approach. "I just want to make it and then get back to my other life," she told me.

Thorn is best known as the singer of Everything But the Girl, a duo she has maintained with her husband, Ben Watt, since 1982. Though the couple is still together, the band hasn't released an album since 1999, which she attributes largely to the demands of raising three children in London.

Thorn sings without excessive affect, and has resonance throughout the range of her contralto voice. Her combination of sturdy texture and lack of dramatic flair enables her to sell a lyric in a number of styles. But Everything But the Girl presented Thorn in a variety of soigne settings that often sounded like the soundtrack to a party you couldn't possibly get into. At first, the duo worked with a melange of Latin music and mid-fifties cool jazz. I fell for one of their earliest songs, "Each and Everyone," from 1984's "Eden." The track feels like a modified bossa nova, though the band has a distinctly American-sounding horn section. In the lyrics, Thorn dismisses an unfaithful lover, singing as if she is anything but bothered: "You tell me I'm free of the past now and all those lies / then offer me the same thing in a different guise." I was drawn in by the tone--these were suave types, not easily bruised or wound up. As a teen-ager, I didn't know the Brazilian and American records being pilfered, and it hardly mattered: sophistication is a performance that isn't ever precisely real or fake. But the act can grow a little tired when it's mostly on the surface.

In the nineties, Everything But the Girl moved toward the tougher and more democratic sound of house music. Their 1994 single "Missing" is an elemental song that uses clear language to elaborate on one of pop's key phrases: "I miss you." Thorn's singing held firm to her simple formula--come across strong and calm, without regard to ideas such as "diva" or "soul." As remixed by Todd Terry, an experienced house-music producer, "Missing" became a huge hit, reaching No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That same year, Thorn collaborated with Massive Attack on a song called "Protection," which articulated Thorn's dependable side, making concrete what had always seemed to be there: her lyrics are about protecting others, which is usually more the province of parents than pop singers. A girl is doing herself "damage" and a young couple has a baby--Thorn rounds them all up and takes care of them in one phrase: "I stand in front of you, I'll take the force of the blow / protection. …

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