Girl power on Record




Tracey Thorn


4 stars

For music listeners of a certain vintage, Tracey Thorn (right) has a unique place in their achy, break-y hearts.

Together with then boyfriend and now husband Ben Watt, she is the chanteuse of the now-dormant English indie pop duo Everything But The Girl (EBTG), singing in an unflappable croon which can disarm, then slay you.

She may not be the loudest or most glamorous, but she is very special. She proffers truths in a matter-of-fact way and they hit you long after.

From her early 1980s days as part of the post-punk trio Marine Girls to her latter-day reinvention as a published writer, deft Twitter commentator and thoughtful columnist with British current affairs and political magazine New Statesman, her talent to gently laser human foibles is undiminished.

You can hear the 55-year-old's throaty wisdom on her fifth solo album, bathetically titled Record. On record, that unmistakable voice of hers has deepened to a brogue, which Pitchfork aptly describes as a "spiritual forebear to the xx's Romy Madley Croft".

Co-producer Ewan Pearson does not mask it. He keeps it unadorned, weaving around it a cocoon of diaphanous synths and decorous beats which remind one of EBTG's heyday as pre-millennial downtempo, jazz-pop purveyors, but also situate her as someone who does not give a damn.

She calls the nine songs on Record "feminist bangers" and they are delivered with some of her sassiest melodies. They sound like, well, emancipation.

At the centre is Sister, a gloriously clubby, 81/2-minute testament of female empowerment which should be heard everywhere. "Don't mess with me/Don't hug my babies/I'll come for you/You'll find you've bitten off more than you can chew," she warns misogynists, as funky guitar riffs joust with serrated drums and an unexpected jingle of cowbells.

"I am my mother now/I am my sister/And I fight like a girl," she coos, casually flipping the stereotype of effete girl-fighting on its head. Harmonising, singer Corinne Bailey Rae provides sisterly support.

On Air, with another female singer, Shura, providing vocal accompaniment, Thorn states drolly how she was sidelined growing up. "Too tall/ All wrong/Deep voice/Headstrong/ I need some air," she recalls, seemingly without an iota of bitterness.

All the boys she liked "like the girly, girly, girly, girly girls and look straight through me like plate glass, like fresh air, like I wasn't even there" is her lucid confession amid emollient disco beats.

That's why her devotees - discreet and hidden as they may be - love her. She is candid to a fault and does not sugarcoat bitter pills. Her songs treat listeners as equals.

Face, her account of a woman poring through an ex-boyfriend's Facebook page and his "lovely new wife", is crushing, but one comes to realise that the ability to feel a prick of pain keeps one alive and one should be thankful for it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2018, with the headline 'Girl power on Record'. Print Edition | Subscribe