Thursday, 8 February 2007
When I first heard that Tracey Thorn was working on a solo album with Ewan Pearson, Charles Webster and other left-of-centre electronic producers, I have to admit to getting a bit excited. While I was never really much of an Everything But The Girl fan – though I do have a soft spot for some of the dancefloor remixes of their work – there’s something about her beguiling vocals and bittersweet lyrics that really pushes my musical buttons. She could sing our dirge of a national anthem and still make it sound heartfelt and melancholic; hell, she could probably sing a list of British place names and it’d still sound bloody brilliant.
It goes without saying that ‘Out Of The Woods’, her new solo album, was always going to be a bit of an event for this music fan. Thorn’s last appearance on vinyl was back in 2005, when she memorably guested on ‘Damage’, the stand-out track on Tiefschwarz’s disappointing ‘Eat Books’ LP. Before that, she’d not sung a note since deciding to ditch music for the full-time demands of motherhood. To top it all off, her last solo album was released back in 1982, when she was little more than a punky student with a passion for off-beat acoustic music. For the record, that album's called ‘A Distant Shore’ and now sounds as if it was made not only in another era, but possibly on another planet. Featuring a confrontational Thorn with little more than her acoustic guitar for company, it was widely acclaimed at the time. Listening back now, it not only seems quaintly lo-fi, but also rather flat; the Thorn of 'A Distant Shore' had yet to fully develop as a songwriter or vocalist, giving the whole thing a strangely monotone feel. She's certainly come a long way since then.
Of course, the rarity her solo material and appearances on wax wouldn't mean anything if 'Out Of The Woods' was a total stinker. Luckily, it's a fantastic album. As you’d expect, there are moments of quiet beauty, intense melancholy and heartfelt introdpection, yet noticably these are tempered by a clutch of uplifting pop songs, classic dancefloor cuts and even a memorable cover of Arthur Russell’s wonky disco standard ‘Get Around To It’. It is, all told, an excellent album.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first, of course, is Thorn herself. She is a much underrated songwriter – something which annoys her immensely, you suspect – and here gets a chance to really strut her stuff lyrically. So, we get the life-affirming pop-positivity of single ‘It’s All True’ (that Ewan Pearson/Sasse/Darshan Jesrani-produced number which was memorably remixed by Martin Buttrich), the remarkable reminiscing of ‘Hands Up To The Ceiling’ (where our hero looks back to her early musical inspirations) and the fragile lovelorn musings of ‘Easy’. And that’s just for starters: lyrically, ‘Out Of The Woods’ is fascinating. It is, of course, all delivered with Thorn’s usual mix of heartfelt fragility and supreme confidence.
Then there’s the prouction. Much of the album was produced by Ewan Pearson, who wisely takes the ‘less is more’ approach. While his hand is clearly evident in the album’s mix of the traditional and futuristic, he never smothers Thorn’s songs in thumping beats, camp disco strings or dark, appregiated basslines. Tom ‘Cagedbaby’ Gandley goes for a shinier pop sound on his two contributions (of which 'Raise The Roof', the album closer, stands out), whilst Charles Webster treats ‘Nowhere Near’ like something from his 2001 album ‘Born On The 24th July’. Darkmountaingroup’s Alex Santos provides the album’s most obvious contemporary dancefloor moment, opting for a dark minimal/deep house throb on ‘Grand Canyon’. Vector Lovers man Martin Wheeler is also involved, looping up pianos and punching out electro beats on ‘Easy’. But for all the headline producer involvement, you never get the feeling that this is anything less than the album Tracey Thorn wanted to make; it hangs together that well.
Perhaps the most striking thinh about ‘Out Of The Woods’, though, is its marriage of contemporary electronics and quirky, odd instrumentation. Opener ‘Here It Comes Again’, for example, sees Thorn’s distinctive vocals riding a beatless sea of harmonium, strings and celeste (a kind of dreamier glockenspiel, fact fans). ‘Falling Off A Log’, meanwhile, boasts extensive use of an Omnichord, a little-known Japanese instrument which is operated by pressing chord buttons and “strumming” a touch plate. The aforementioned Arthur Russell cover ‘Get Around To It’ bizarrely features the world’s craziest sax solo – provided by Gabe from the Rapture – while ‘Nowhere Near’ has flute and flugelorn from legendary deep house sessioneer Pete Wraight (Charles Webster, Brooks, Atjazz etc).
It all adds up to an album that’s so easy to love, you’ll find yourself listening to it almost endlessly. Beguiling, bittersweet and brilliant, it’s proof – if any were needed – of Tracey Thorn’s immense talent. Now she’s ‘Out Of The Woods’, here’s hoping we’ll hear a lot more memorable records like this.
• Tracey Thorn's 'Out Of The Woods' album will be released by Virgin Records on March 19. Click on the header of this post to listen to clips of tracks at Tracey's official MySpace page •