The backstory goes like this: Back in the summer of 2010, the English indie rock band the xx asked Tracey Thorn and her ex-Everything But the Girl bandmate Ben Watt to record a song from the xx’s debut album. The xx’s aim was to commission covers of all the songs on the record. However, the situation changed when the xx won the Mercury Prize in September 2010. The prestigious award, given by industry professionals for the best album from the United Kingdom and Ireland, raised the xx’s profile and sent the band on other projects—including an international tour.
Meanwhile, Thorn sang and recorded the plaintive “Night Time” with Watt on guitar and background vocals and production by Thorn’s current produce Ewan Pearson. She has decided to release it on an EP along with three remixes of her song “Swimming” from her most recent solo disc Love and Its Opposite. “Night Time” and all the versions of “Swimming” do have a similar vibe, so packaging them together makes aural sense.
Thorn’s efforts, with and without Everything But the Girl, have always relied on atmospherics. She created a kind of sophisticated dance music that seemed suited for those with pretensions, but who were insecure about them. That’s a description, not a put down, because the music filled a need for those wanted to escape from their personal and social situations. The music conveyed the unfocused yearning we all have for something more and celebrates our shared sense of desire to escape from the mundane—if only for the length of a song.
Thorn’s choice of “Night Time” fits in with her past repertoire. The lyrics are full of self-conscious longing that cannot be directly expressed. Thorn sings lines like, “You mean that much to me / And it’s hard to show” and “I couldn’t spill my heart / My eyes gleam looking in from the dark,” etc. to suggest the narrator’s feelings are too deep to put out in the open lest she gets hurt. Watt’s instrumental accompaniment and voice do add some luster to the musical picture, but this is really Thorn’s (and producer Pearson’s) song. The boy is mostly absent from the recording.
The three versions of “Swimming” provide an interesting context to “Night Time”. Like “Night Time”, the song concerns an unfulfilled yearning. In this case, the three remixes, meant for the dance floor, convey various moods through the way the vocals and instrumentals mix as well as the use various percussive beats and sound effects. The Visionquest (Detroit’s Seth Troxler, Ryan Crosson, and Lee Curtiss) production emphasizes the expanse of water the narrator finds herself in. Thorn’s vocals are largely drowned out by the pounding rhythms of the surf and the sound of the waves. Think of a visual representation of a person swimming in the ocean. One could close up on the person’s body and show the effort or pan back and reveal the vast size of the water compared to the human being. Visionquest shows us the seascape without a marker. We do not know where we are our where we are headed. We need a buoy to help us navigate.
The Charles Webster mix takes a different approach, although his is also aimed at the dance floor. He initially lets the pounding of the surf soak the listener into good vibes He lets Thorn vocally reveal the importance of swimming over floating (and going with the flow). But Webster lets Thorn disappear from the production. She is unheard from during the last two-plus minutes of the track, and it’s unclear what has happened to her. She drifts away and needs a buoy so she can be pulled back to shore.
Webster’s dub version is even sparser, as befits the genre. Thorn’s voice is barely present for most of the song, and used as a sound effect more than for a vehicle to express language. The dub has a deep groove, but its connection to what the song is about gets lost in favor of the beat. We need a buoy to show the channel, lest the generic qualities of dub overtake any specific meaning of the song.
Thorn’s decision to let the mixers do their stuff to her song allows them to largely take her out of the mix. She has already has released her version of “Swimming”, and the real attraction here is “Night Time” with Watt. It’s a shame he’s not more present, but this is all about the girl.