Tracey Thorn is the tall, googly-eyed singer in the British band Everything But The Girl. The early '80s saw Thorn and her partner Ben Watt churning out glistening cool jazz--giving fresh currency to Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and concocting pop songs with Stan Getz-y saxophone visitations. They spent the rest of the decade in an unfocused whirl, shifting from guitar pop to country western to easy listening. In 1994, remixologist Todd Terry picked up on a track from their acoustic album Amplified Heart and remodeled it into the transcendent dance hit "Missing." After years of toiling, EBTG had finally struck pay dirt.
The cross-section of music fans that came out to their 1997 show at the Pier was one of the weirdest I have ever witnessed. Dance club hipsters and soft rock moms grooved in wary détente. There's one thing these two groups have in common, though: They probably wouldn't be remotely interested in Tracey Thorn's juvenilia.
A Distant Shore is Tracey Thorn's 1982 solo album, and although she was already in Everything But The Girl, the album is closer in spirit to the lilting charm of her earlier band, the Marine Girls. But whereas the Marine Girls specialized in proto-low-fi with cutesy lyrics like "20,000 leagues under the sea/That's where my baby said he'd meet me," Thorn's solo work took on a darker dimension. With Plath-like pathos and girl group hope she charted the slow, uneasy diminishment of a relationship in a brief eight-song contemplation. But rather than crafting a static singer/songwriter lament, Thorn chose a revolving series of viewpoints to sketch her blues.
The "Small Town Girl" knows she isn't very experienced, but still trusts her instincts. With a bleating, repeating guitar phrase she tells her lover, "Your distinctions prove such a subtle difference/But subtlety/Was always lost on me." In "Simply Couldn't Care" the singer has become older and wiser. She has a firmer grasp of irony, and notes its presence in the day-to-day. "You're maddening/But you keep me awake/I would scream at you/But there's too much at stake."
On A Distant Shore, Thorn's voice, low and struggling to stay with the long notes, is accompanied only by the spare brush of her acoustic guitar, strummed in haunting minor chords. Her inimitable timbre and phrasing maintain the sensuous allure found in EBTG. Yet as surely as Thorn's voice is her calling card, it hampers her with an exceedingly narrow range--as exhibited on A Distant Shore's cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale." It's hard to imagine a female whose comfort zone for singing is smaller than Nico's. But when Nico soared up to "she's such a little tease," she traveled far beyond the vocal reach of Thorn's stripped-down version. Thorn glides down to the phrase, transporting the lyric into an ironic aside rather than mimicking Nico's flippancy.
Since 1982, Tracey Thorn has gone on to much greater glories than the small pleasures afforded by A Distant Shore. Her lyrical skill has produced brilliant gems like "Fascination," the nervous look backward at her new love's old love from Everything But The Girl's 1984 LP Eden, and the keen analysis of a couple's bartering system on their 1996 hit, "Wrong." She has worked out the bugs in her voice and become something of a diva, especially as the guest vocalist on Massive Attack's sultry "Protection." But the eight songs of her solo album have a streamlined appeal, a bareness that is not impeded by extraneous music or meaning. It's the raw sound of being half of an unknown whole.
Simplicity can indicate a lot of things in music. It can signal a lack of chops, inattention to detail, a minimalist approach, or disinterest in more complicated forms. But in a timeless fashion--like the eternal little black dress--Tracey Thorn's A Distant Shore proves that sometimes simple is the most direct route to stunning.