Sunday 30 August 2020

Retro Reviews: Everything But The Girl - Walking Wounded

Another instalment of this intermittent series today, with an album that spurred me onto doing this in the first place. It's the oldest album I've covered in the retro reviews series so far; Everything But The Girl's Walking Wounded from 1996. EBTG are an interesting band for their progression alone: staring off as a pop-come-indie band back in the mid-80's, by this point in the 90's they'd transformed into an electronic act making Drum & Bass and House. Despite this change, Walking Wounded is a good jumping in point if you're looking to explore their more electronic avenues as it's the first major release featuring this new electronic direction. Let's get stuck in.

As intro tracks go, there is no better demonstration of the overarching sound of this album than Before Today: 90's jungle backed with some deliciously smooth synths, all tied together with the sultry delivery of Tracey Thorn. I say this every time I bring up this album, but I still can't get over (despite the slightly dated sounds) how clean the production is. In my mind Jungle always has a bit of a rough 'round the edges aesthetic, especially in this era, but I have to remind myself acts like Everything But The Girl and Omni Trio were putting out stuff like this around then too (and I adore both of them).

Things take a delightfully retro turn next with Wrong, most definitely erring on the side of House this time. Picture the kind of house that would bleed onto the radio from time to time back in the 90's and you're most of the way there to how this one sounds. It's very much in the spirit of their own previous big radio hit Missing, from the album previous to this one Amplified Heart, specifically the Todd Terry remix from 1995. While treading the same ground as Missing, I think it's still pretty nice, Thorn's vocals are always a treat and even though Ben Watt's taken more than a few pointers from Todd Terry's mix here, his work throughout this album is slick and versatile.

I normally try to jump around the tracklists when writing these retro reviews but this album in particular perfectly summarises it's overall sound almost perfectly in the first 3 tracks. Single in contrast to the other two tracks so far is a more downtempo piece that's more in the style of the Trip Hop that was floating around at the time. For me this is where Thorn's vocals are at their best (though I will admit I am biased because my favourite is her work with Massive Attack on Protection which is very much like this). This particular breed of melancholy has been a constant throughout EBTG's work, and this album is no exception, even on the more upbeat tracks as we'll see with the next track. Watt's production is given some time to shine here in the latter quarter and shines as always. There's some muted sax in the background that runs the risk of dating the track but honestly I think it still works.

Moving onto the title track next, something I've not really talked about yet that I always bring up in regards to this album is the overall high-tech vibe it has. As was the trend in the 1990's, remember this is 1996: the beginning of the PlayStaton era, 3D CGI and Eastern Influenced graphic design a la The Designer's Republic as seen on the cover are very much in vogue at the time. It's a period I have more than a tinge of nostalgia for as I was a young Foxbat at the time, and in a sea of albums and designs that look or sound incredibly dated now a good 2 decades on, Walking Wounded always stood out to me as one that had aged well. Giving it a bit of a more critical close up now though there are definitely marks of the time on it, the string-styled accompaniment on the choruses is a little dated, but other than that I think it's still solid. The Jungle bassline remains killer and surprisingly powerful, it certainly gave my desk a bit of a dusting off when I had my speakers up just a touch too high. It was the first single from the album and I think that was a great choice as it makes a great demo of the new direction EBTG were taking, I will always love the intro here which for me properly encapsulates that high-tech feeling I mentioned.

I will admit here the album takes a bit of a stumble, nothing deal breaking but the tracks just don't do it for me like the choices so far do. Mirrorball for example hearkens back to their pre-electronic days, a downtempo acoustic jam about youth that, while charming, seems a little out of place up against the moody atmospheric Drum & Bass of the title track. Still there's plenty left to enjoy; Good Cop Bad Cop gives both halves of EBTG to flex in their respective areas: Thorn laying down some vocals that this time are more in line with the R&B vocals featured on some Drum & Bass of the time, and Watt's command of the production is as good as ever, although those strings make another appearance. I'd have maybe liked another track or so at the end, as it stands this is essentially the end of the album proper, Good Cop Bad Cop works fine as a final track but the whole thing feels a bit light at 9 tracks not counting the 2 remixes on the end.

It was only natural after the success of Missing that they hit up Todd Terry for another remix. This time reworking Wrong. Much like his mix of Missing the treatment is minimal, the addition of a little more dancefloor friendly House-y beat mainly. While the remix of Missing was a great flip and transformation of a folky tune into a House one, it doesn't feel like Todd's done much here. Which isn't inherently a bad thing but it is a little disappointing, a feeling that maybe wouldn't have been as strong if it were an extended edit out to like 6 mins or something similar. Still, the song's as good as ever, even if there's been no major changes.

And finally, another choice remixer for this album: Omni Trio. I mentioned them in passing above, bringing them on board to do a remix or hell even any of the Moving Shadow crew of the time was a choice move. And it certainly worked out very well in this case. Much more of a remix than Terry's above, here Omni Trio brings their own unique style of D&B to the table and it works very very well. Fragments of Thorn's vocals back a lush, almost chillout piece with a deceptively thick bassline and sparkling keys that is Omni Trio's style to a T. The way those additional drums cascade into the mix at 2:11 is an absolute masterstroke. My only complaints are first that the chorus never shows up, while I like the bits and pieces of Thorn's vocals sprinkled throughout, I would have liked the chorus to appear once or twice and I think it would have worked fine with the instrumentation. And second that it just kind of... ends. There's a little bit of a skip before to signify it but it just feels kinda abrupt, but that is small potatoes.

And that does it for another Retro Review. Walking Wounded is a good, albeit short album. It does take a bit of a turn in the latter part of the tracklist, but those opening songs are incredibly strong and very much make up for any rough patches. And that kind of thing is understandable as well given this was the band's first all-in-electronic album, and when you consider that context I think that the strong tracks are absolutely phenomenal. Certainly check out this album (Especially the re-issue with a second disc of more remixes, demos and live recordings, some of them are belters), and what would ultimately be their final follow up Temperamental which continues with that electronic sound. As always, stay safe and enjoy the music.


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