The language of lite

Ben Watt, one half of the English music duo Everything But the Girl, is talking about death from his Atlanta hotel room.

"I know it sounds glib," the 31-year-old singer-songwriter-musician says in his high, clear, thoughtful voice, "but everything really is more important now. I find myself wanting to simplify my affairs."

He's referring to a months-long bout with Churg Strauss Syndrome in 1992 that nearly killed him. The condition creates an inflammation of the blood vessels, which wreaks havoc on your insides. His musical partner, Tracy Thorn, was beside him throughout the ordeal. Several operations and regular doses of medication later, Watt has less than 20 percent of his intestinal tract and must eat a severely restricted diet and forever struggle to maintain a normal weight.

Emerging this last September with their first studio album in four years, and the first time they've toured the States in as long, Everything But the Girl clearly have a desire to shed some baggage. Amplified Heart, their latest collection of songs, is stripped-down, but don't confuse that with rough. Watt and Thorn deliver simpler versions of the sparkling mid-tempo exercises in longing they've perfected over 13 years and nine albums.

Part of the urge to purge comes from Watt's brush with mortality, but almost as powerful is an impulse to shed the studio gloss that has weighed heavy atop their last few recordings--and edged them toward a market with which Watt isn't entirely comfortable.

Call the radio stations lite jazz, or Adult Album Alternative, or musical wallpaper for the progressive dentist's office, but these days they're the place--besides VH-1--where you're most likely to hear the spare, languid, mournful tunes of Watt and Thorn.

"Don't get me wrong," Watt stresses, "I'm grateful for the air play. But I think most of [the stations] have hooked onto Everything But the Girl because of our polished surface, and missed the boat lyrically. To tell you the truth, most of the music they play leaves me cold. How do you think Paul Simon feels when one of his best songs is heard next to Kenny G?"

Surely this can't be the man who co-wrote and performed on The Language of Life, EBTG's Los Angeles-recorded 1990 ice sculpture of jazz-urban contemporary meditations in which American session heavyweights like Michael Brecker and Omar Hakim were called to sweeten the mix. Decked in a black suit, Watt straddled a chair on the album's cover, his face a self-conscious pout of romantic swagger. He and Thorn proved they could summon just the right amount of icy distance, and wound up besting their Yank cohorts by creating a lite jazz album that breaks out of its own plush prison thanks to the pair's gorgeously rendered misanthropy.

"Those guys seemed quite intrigued working with us," Watt observes. "I mean, they're used to making Al Jarreau records. What we offered them was quite spiky."

Amplified Heart represents the best and worst of a musical partnership that has been sturdy, prolific, and, in modest ways, committed to adventurousness. The emphasis on acoustic guitars and percussion, with a faint brush of synthesizer here and there, recalls their earliest efforts, except Watt, the principal songwriter of the pair, has grown even more obsessed with the past while clipping his verses down to punchier, angrier phrases.

Although obscured here by a lyrical melancholy unusual even for them, the duo's trademark repetitive, flattering harmonies still sometimes sound lazy, as in "We Walk the Same Line," a propulsive, treacly tune that makes you understand why EBTG has been compared to Fleetwood Mac in several mainstream publications (including The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly) that have pinned ornate praise on Amplified Heart.

For a musician who began as a teenager in the late '70s London punk scene (as did Thorn, whose first band, The Marine Girls, didn't have a drummer), those must seem like fighting words, and although Watt acknowledges "if punk did anything, it shattered the rock 'n' roll myth," he is cautiously flattered. "I really like some of those Fleetwood Mac singles from the '70s," he admits with a giggle. "It's the mythical, hedonistic, soft-rock side they developed which I didn't care for. I don't mind [the comparison], as long as they don't take it too far. The texture of our music is moody and atmospheric, and I can understand how Tracy's voice would be compared to Stevie Nicks."

But, in fact, Stevie Nicks wasn't the comparison, but sunny, sleep-inducing Christine McVie. Everything But the Girl deserves such damning analogies when they coast, which they do on about half of every album they've released, but the rest of the time, Thorn commands with her achy, sensuous voice. Her delivery glitters with the kind of luxurious ennui Chet Baker could drape over a ballad. And often it's Watt's lyrics, not her own, that provide the appropriate sandpaper sentiment.

Occasionally Watt takes lead vocals, and in the right context--"The Night I Heard Caruso Sing" from Idlewild (1988) and "25th December," a tune on the new album featuring Richard Thompson on lead guitar--he achieves the kind of Anglo folk-bluesiness in which James Taylor used to specialize. And like Taylor, he finds himself being channeled toward audiences who don't pay as much attention to the music as he might wish.

"We've become a victim of the 'rockifying' of the alternative market," Watt laments. "For a long time, we were considered a cult jewel by the pre-grunge crowd, like Cocteau Twins or The Sundays. But the goal posts have been moved. Now these adult jazz stations [in America] have picked up on our sound, and we're being programmed in a very different direction."

Standing near the precipice of chart-topping American success (they reached that level years ago in the U.K.) must seem a strange place for Watt, who, he admits, "received my share of flak" during the '70s for his unabashed appreciation of Nick Drake and other Brit folkies. To Watt, his own careful songcraft and brooding observations are perfectly in keeping with the spirit of post-punk experimentalism that spawned Aztec Camera, Yazoo, and Scritti Politti in the early '80s. To the American music industry, he and Thorn are consummate, consistent spinners of a sound that sells big to one of the most sought-after demographic in the country--white, college-educated, upper-income folks in their 30s and 40s.

And yet, if Everything But the Girl stick to their songwriting guns, they have a chance to make the same professionalism seem cool to folks who like their pop music brave and urgent. I tell Watt I've been listening a lot to Nirvana's Unplugged album, and am struck by how the last testimony to Kurt Cobain's talent wasn't the garage-wallop of his band, but his own disciplined melodicism as a composer.

Watt, a Cobain fan, agrees. "Music is now being made by folks who were influenced by the post-punk bands. They're not afraid of appearing contradictory--they follow the punk ethos of confrontation, but they also want to play their instruments well. Kurt, to me, was an example of a very postmodern songwriter--frightening and moving at the same time. That's what I aspire to be."

Everything But the Girl performs Nov. 27 at Caravan of Dreams, 312 Houston, in Fort Worth.

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