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Singing Wounded: Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything but the Girl craft laments for the lovelorn.

Lullaby of Clubland

Everything but the Girl and Dot Allison find the naked need beneath the shiny surface of electronic music

By Michelle Goldberg

IN THE EARLY '90s, pop fans with dreamy, delicate sensibilities found refuge from the onslaught of grunge in bands like Lush, Curve, the Cocteau Twins and Slowdive. Condescendingly dubbed shoe-gazer bands, these groups made some of the most gorgeous music in pop history, creating songs dedicated to beauty and sentiment that enveloped listeners like a womb.

With the decade's electronic-music revolution, that ethereal tradition has been reborn with groups like Everything but the Girl and Dot Allison, who both have new records out this month. Their releases aren't really ambient, since that term implies a kind of inoffensive background noise that you can space out too. Instead, the albums sound like electronic lullabies.

So much in contemporary life is harsh and discordant, and genres like jungle mirror that furious lunacy in the world. These records, however, represent a reaction against that harshness, an embrace of lovely melancholy and pathos.

Like other bands working in this vein--most notably Hooverphonic and Halou--each of these acts revolves around a female vocalist, and each carves out a niche away from the macho bombast that dominates electronic music. The beats and loops that pulse through both albums reflect a highly digital, urban milieu, but the heartbreaking vocals make the songs deeply human tales of individuals adrift in an overwhelming urbanity.

THE SIMULTANEOUS sense of loving the city and feeling isolated by it animates Everything but the Girl's Temperamental (Atlantic). Though Temperamental is the British duo's ninth studio album, it feels like its second, because the group's last record, Walking Wounded, represented such a breakthrough for the pair.

On Walking Wounded, Tracey Thorn (vocals) and Ben Watt (guitar, keyboards and bass) exchanged the lite-jazz and pop guitars of their past for delicate, liquidlike drum 'n' bass soundscapes. It was almost inevitable that Temperamental, Everything but the Girl's second electronic-based album, couldn't replicate the bittersweet brilliance of its predecessor, but the record comes close on songs like "Low Tide of the Night" and "Downhill Racer."

The biggest problem with Temperamental is that the band seems to have taken the clubland cred that it gained with Walking Wounded far too much to heart. Walking Wounded certainly took its inspiration from dance music, but it rarely pretended to be dance music.

Instead, the album came across as lovelorn as a girl crying under her eye glitter and false eyelashes in a bar bathroom. "The Heart Remains a Child," one of that album's best tracks, empathetically evoked the naked need that throbs beneath a polished facade.

But on the new album's opening track, "Five Fathoms," the band seems to be shooting for the kind of house/pop crossover that M. People are famous for. The result is pallid and hollow. Similarly, on "Blame," the toughened-up breakbeats and Basement Jaxx-style filters used on Thorn's deeply soulful voice strip the music of the tender originality that made the songs on Walking Wounded so sublime. Instead, the underlying music just sounds generic.

Everything but the Girl is far better on club-kid ballads (one of the best tracks on Temperamental is called "Lullaby of Clubland"), songs that reflect early-evening or morning-after loneliness and confusion. The way Thorn's voice curls around the line "Who shall I be tonight?" on "Low Tide of Night" manages to suggest both the freedom to create yourself from scratch that is nightlife's greatest appeal and the bottomless emptiness that often underlies it.

DOT ALLISON goes far deeper than Everything but the Girl on her ravishing solo debut, Afterglow (Arista). The former lead singer of the band One Dove, Allison has made an album that seems like the angel child of Portishead and Hooverphonic.

Her voice has Portishead's Beth Gibbons' slinky menace, and the music that swirls behind her bears hints of the Bristol band's spy-film ambiance, especially on the opening track, "Colour Me."

But Afterglow is far softer and more romantic than anything by Portishead. "Did I Imagine You?" possesses an aching beauty heightened by subtle strings, bells that sound like stones thrown in a placid pond and watercolor synth washes. Allison's clarion voice evinces a kind of wide-eyed, girlish openness that makes the track exceedingly poignant.

Even more exquisite is "Alpha Female," a pained rebuke a man who has broken a woman's heart because her strength scared him. "She didn't want to conquer you, another misconception," Allison sings, before whispering later in the song, "She isn't there to be misused."

Allison is a wonderfully versatile performer. It seems counterintuitive to match her gossamer voice with a swinging funk track, but the mix works surprisingly well on "Mo' Pop." Another exemplary song, "Tomorrow Never Comes," has a hint of Mazzy Star-style twang. There's even a Kurt Weill-influenced neo-cabaret torch song, the dark, icily gorgeous "In Winter Still," which gets a retro feel thanks to a jaunty piano and brooding cello. Somehow, although she doesn't change her pitch, Allison's voice takes on the weary, tarnished richness of a '30s supper-club songbird.

None of this should suggest, though, that Allison is a musical dilettante. Remarkably, on Afterglow, she subsumes all of these influences into her own graceful vision, so that the album is entirely cohesive without ever being monotonous.

Afterglow is as affecting as Walking Wounded and far more beautiful than Temperamental. Electronic musicians have spent decades mastering sound's alchemical physical effects--the way certain rhythms practically force people to dance. Albums like Afterglow show how the same digital effects can help artists move their listeners even when they're sitting still.

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From the September 30-October 6, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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