Everything but the Girl’s Excellent Surprise Return, ‘Fuse,’ Picks Up Right Where They Left Off 24 Years Ago: Album Review04/21/2023
For those without long memories, Everything But the Girl are a British duo that first emerged in the early 1980s as a sort of neo-jazz outfit combining Tracey Thorn’s virtuoso but downcast vocals and Ben Watt’s formidable guitar playing. Over the next 15 years they morphed impressively through different styles — from Smiths-style jangly alt-rock to the slick pop of “The Language of Life” — but with 1994’s “Amplified Heart,” electronics began to enter their latest jazz-trio-ish incarnation. And when house music producer Todd Terry’s dancefloor-driven remix of that album’s “Missing” became a surprise global hit, Watt immediately embraced the then-burgeoning drum n’ bass scene in the U.K. and within months was behind the turntables for nearly all of the group’s live sets. The next two albums, “Walking Wounded” and “Temperamental,” evolved this sound, with beats and atmospheric keyboards creating the backdrop for Thorn’s increasingly soulful singing.
Then, in an obverse of the way such situations usually go, in 1999 Thorn and Watt ankled the group but remained together as a couple, raising a family and occasionally releasing solo albums over the next 24 years.
Thus it was no small surprise to find out earlier this year that they’d not only reformed the group but already had finished a new album — and even better to hear that, in many ways, it basically picks up right where they left off. Thorn’s voice is deeper and more seasoned, the energy is a bit more restrained, there are a few more ballads, but its smooth and sleek electronic beats and textures are consistent with all of their work. The songs transcend the style they’re working in — a tribute not only to their songwriting but their ability to make music that doesn’t sound dated. “Walking Wounded” and “Temperamental” may have embraced the dance trends of the mid- and late-1990s, but they’ve aged much better than most recordings from that era.
Likewise, the sounds here are informed by the electronic music eras that have passed since the duo’s last album — there are flashes of dubstep and even autotune over its house foundation — but it’s not dependent on any of them. As ever, it’s often downcast and occasionally downright maudlin — one prominent trademark Thorn lyric is “Kiss me while the world decays”; on the closing “Karaoke” there’s a wry reference to getting the party started — but about half of the album consists of low-key bangers; the propulsive opener, “Nothing Left to Lose,” even has glimpses of vintage Eurythmics. But the only thing that feels dated about this album is the cover artwork (which looks like a flyer for a 1990s Florida rave).
Like all of the group’s recordings, the songs transcend the sound, and “Fuse” finds this veteran group as vital as ever.
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