“I want someone to tie to my apron strings,” Tracey Thorn sang almost 20 years ago on Everything But the Girl’s “Apron Strings”. Now she has a child of her own, three of them, in fact. After 15 years with musical and life partner Ben Watt as Everything But the Girl, Thorn basically retired after EBTG’s Temperamental in 1999, an album that found the duo furthering their use of electronica to augment their cozy, singer-songwriterly music. While Watt established a reputation as a major DJ/label boss in London’s deep house music scene (with his Lazy Dog club night and Buzzin’ Fly record label) Thorn apparently stayed home with the kids, occasionally popping up as a guest vocalist for electronic-leaning acts such as Tiefschwarz.
Now, with the kids out of diapers and presumably off to school, she’s decided to tell her side of the story. As its title suggests, Out of the Woods chronicles Thorn’s past decade of motherhood and partnership with Watt as a rite of passage, one that’s allowed her to finally get back to her craft. Accordingly, Out of the Woods is more of a reassertion than a reinvention; musically, it could be the direct follow-up to Temperamental. Working primarily with ultra-hot producer/mixer Ewan Pearson (as well as a clutch of similarly hip names including Martin Wheeler, Charles Webster, and Buzzin’ Fly signee Alex Santos) she creates a familiar mix of styles that leans heavily toward contemporary electronica, but also has room for traditional folk and piano ballads.
Consequently, Thorn sounds as in-her-element and comfortable as ever. She’s always been a singular talent in the pop music world, with her overall approach, as well as her singing voice. Cool and laconic where others can’t resist being shrill and overdone, she’s the anti-diva. And in using electronic music as a backdrop for a range of real emotions rather than a “look at me now!” stab at continued relevance, she’s the anti-Kylie, too. From EBTG’s first original single, “Each and Every One”, she’s always conveyed a subtle, yet unmistakable, feminism by simply being a woman and being honest about it — a much more effective approach than the sex-tease posturing Sheryl Crow, Liz Phair, and others have resorted to. Nowhere on Out of the Woods is that more evident than on her cover of ’80s NYC non-conformist composer Arthur Russell’s “Get Around To It”. “Show me what the girl does / To the boy / If you can get around to it”, Thorn sings in her seductively offhand manner, as Pearson’s funky, quirky, Afro-beat-influenced production recalls prime Talking Heads. For longtime Thorn fans, the song is doubly fun because it presents her in a new context — a bit goofy, playful, and overtly sexual.
If only more of Out of the Woods found Thorn stepping outside herself like that. Although there’s nothing wrong with the chunky hip-hop beats of the otherwise downcast “A-Z” and “Easy”, or the thumping electro-pop of the winning single “It’s All True”, they’re hardly surprising, and risk becoming dated by the current trend toward ’80s-leaning analog synth squeals. The slowed-down vintage Chicago house groove of “Falling Off a Log”, though, is another high point. Watt handled most of the arranging for EBTG, and the meandering, quasi-demo feeling of ballads “Here It Comes Again” and “By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept” shows Pearson doesn’t quite have the touch with softer material. The only real misfires, however, are “Grand Canyon” (which is meant to be a tribute to Watt’s clean Buzzin’ Fly sound but falls a bit flat) and the tepid “Raise the Roof”, which sounds disturbingly like MOR, adult-alternative-pandering phase Annie Lennox. Throughout, Thorn does explore the upper range of her voice, usually with great success, although the preponderance of phasing effects is unnecessary at best.
Recently, James Poniewozik authored a column called “Too Cool for Preschool” in Time magazine in which he expressed bemusement at the current generation of hipster parents “who can’t quite believe they ended up doing something as square as raising a kid”. On Out of the Woods, Thorn seems to see herself as one of these, and sometimes it’s tough to sympathize. “What happened to me?” she asks on “Nowhere Near”, before answering herself: “I turned into someone’s mother / Really someone should give me a uniform”. On “Raise the Roof”, she laments, “All those years I wasted / Sitting on my own … / Why did I wait?”. She’s not the first veteran musician who’s had a tough time coming to grips with domestic life (Lindsey Buckingham’s recent Under the Skin comes to mind) and the way it can affect one’s love life. Leave someone else to do the suffering soccer mom thing — Thorn is much more appealing on “Get Around to It” or the self-penned “It’s All True”, asserting (presumably to Watt), “Go away / Round the world / Talk to all kinds of girls / But it’s me you won’t find / And you’re mine”. Anyway, Out of the Woods proves that motherhood and making cool, credible, contemporary music aren’t mutually exclusive.
So much can change once you’ve had someone tied to your apron strings.