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Everything But the Girl get nostalgic, Pet Shop Boys ventriloquise Putin – the week’s best albums

Everything But the Girl have released their first album in 24 years - Edward Bishop
Everything But the Girl have released their first album in 24 years - Edward Bishop

Everything But the Girl, Fuse ★★★★☆

Fuse is the first new release from Everything But The Girl in 24 years but it would be wrong to call it a reunion, because the married duo never actually broke up. Singer Tracey Thorn and instrumentalist Ben Watt met at the University of Hull in the early 80s and have been a music making couple ever since.

Their slow burn success took them through jazz pop, indie soul, and acoustic singer-songwriter formulations before a 1994 electronic remix by New York DJ Todd Terry of heartsore folktronica ballad Missing turned them into multimillion-selling mainstream stars. It helped establish a soulful electronic blend that became ubiquitous in the 90s. There was a time when you couldn’t escape their mellifluous melodies in coffee shops and dinner parties, spawning a brand of chilled-out songcraft still hugely prevalent today. What always set EBTG apart was a tension inherent in their work, arty, intellectual and underground instincts that refused to pander to the pop world.

Uncomfortable in the spotlight, the couple retired EBTG at the end of the decade, to focus on domestic life and raising two children. They have kept modestly busy, with Thorn releasing four solo albums of sophisticated songcraft, and Watt DJing, running record labels and creating electronic dance music under assorted guises. Both have written insightful books about their lives and art. Not exactly your typical pop duo, then.

But here they are again in tandem, picking up where they left off in a sparkling flurry of electronic beats and melancholy soul, with smart, understated songs focusing on the minutiae of ordinary lives. Opening track, Nothing Left To Lose, is a gorgeous demonstration of the simpatico sound the duo conjure. The electronic beats are separated and crisp, with the gliding elegance of Thorn’s deliciously cool voice offering perfect counterpoint.

They began working on the album during the pandemic (Watt had to be shielded due to suffering from an autoimmune condition) and the song’s lyrics hint at end times desperation (“Kiss me while the world decays”) yet the abiding feeling is of the reassurance of being with someone you love. It sets the tone for an album of philosophical musings on trust, faith, love and loss, peppered with nostalgic memories drawn from the couple’s own youthful nightlife on album highlights Run a Red Light and No One Knows We’re Dancing, when the future was open, and domesticity just a mirage on the horizon.

It is not all quite so easy on the ear. The album is dotted with experimental pieces which barely configure as songs, with Thorn singing over strange loops, manifesting internal ruminations of anxiety, whilst Watt rudely distorts her vocals with autotune. One of these, When You Mess Up, sounds like advice to an adult child: “Have a drink, talk too loud / Be a fool in a crowd / But forgive yourself” Thorn sings, adding (with the vocal equivalent of a shrug): “I hate people who give me advice.” There have been so many divorce albums in popular culture it has practically become a genre to itself, but I wonder if EBTG’s return now that their children have grown qualifies this as an Empty Nest album?

The starkness and delicacy of Watt’s arrangements are a pleasure throughout Fuse, where dance beats push subtly but firmly through electro atmospherics, whilst synthetic sounds warp and shift to shape spaces for his partner’s voice. The 60-year-old producer has clearly been keeping an aficionado’s ear on developments in digital electronica, and there is nothing particularly retro or dated about this comeback. Thorn’s voice has a timelessness that will always sound contemporary. She never strains or overemotes but lets her instinct for elegant melody and the understated intelligence of her lyrics carry the dramatic weight.

A reluctant live performer, on album closer Karaoke, Thorn sings about singing as a relief in and of itself: “What’s it for, well who knows? / You take a breath and here goes / You hit the highs and own the lows.” But even her lone spot on the karaoke stage has bigger implications: “Do you sing to heal the broken hearted? / Oh you know I do / Or do you sing to get the party started? / Oh I love that too.” Fuse is an album that tilts in both directions. Neil McCormick

Esther Rose, Safe to Run ★★★★☆

This Michigan-born singer-songwriter first emerged from the shadow of a husband-and-wife arrangement alongside virtuoso blues/jazz guitarist Luke Winslow-King around 2017, when the New Orleans-resident couple parted ways and Rose began releasing solo country records mining themes of romantic upheaval.

Mid-pandemic, she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it’s really with this ensuing fourth album that her unique talent has blossomed. Going into its creation, Rose set various new parameters for herself, including “not another heartbreak song”, and also to abandon purist C&W moves like self-parodying twangs, technology aversion and live-in-the-room ‘real’ production. 

Consequently, synth layers and the occasional drum machine have freshened up her sound, without at all obscuring the connective intimacy in her crystal-clear singing.

Country-tinged but effortlessly transcending genre, Safe to Run has a wonderfully positive, self-defining, searching vibe which instantly makes a rare, joyful connection with the listener, enticing us to share her thrill in starting a new life, and leaping into the unknown.

Shedding some of country’s compositional norms, Rose truly outperforms herself on the songwriting front, stringing together as catchy a collection of tunes as this writer has heard in a fair while. Insecure, a wonderful song of uncertainty going into a new relationship, has all the sublime purity of primetime Fleetwood Mac, while there’s a lilt in Chet Baker’s melodic phrasing which strongly echoes Antipodean alt-songsmith Courtney Barnett. For another stand-out, Hurray For the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra exquisitely duets on the title track’s anxious meditation on rootlessness amid climate change’s “waters rising”.

These are songs rich in detail, soul deep, often burdened with worry and a lifetime’s baggage, yet it’s the hazy sense of a drifter’s freedom in New Magic II which wins through, lifting your spirits time and again. “I don’t have a plan, it’s true,” runs its irresistible chorus, “just to spend a little time with you – and maybe to write a song or two”. On all counts, you think, more power to Ms Rose’s elbow. Andrew Perry

Softest of metal: Jethro Tull
Softest of metal: Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull, RökFlöte ★★☆☆☆

With last year’s The Zealot Gene, Jethro Tull’s eccentric flute-toting frontman Ian Anderson re-invoked the prog-rock giants’ name for the first time on record since 2003’s The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, even though he’d explicitly abandoned it forever two decades ago and core guitarist Martin Barre was now no longer involved.

It would be fair to say that Tull are unchanged in their musical orientation under his now-unchallenged stewardship, just minus the odd guitar solo. Indeed, you don’t get much more prog-rock, or much more Jethro Tull, than a concept album about the gods of Norse paganism titled RökFlöte.

On 1972’s Thick As a Brick, Anderson’s classic line-up famously parodied the booming industry of conceptual records, but they’ve probably contributed to it as much as any band going, this time inspired by their 75-year-old leader’s Scots ancestry and consequent interest in the cultural influx that arrived north of the border along with boatloads of marauding Vikings.

Given the stirringly mythic subject matter, one might reasonably expect some pretty epic music, but RökFlöte left me most disappointed on that score. While the tricksy chord changes upon which most tracks are founded may be clever, or possibly ground-breaking, these recordings seriously lack oomph. 

Even when Wolf Unchained’s tales of terror and disembowelment call for something heavier, 2020’s Tull deliver only the very softest of metal. Between blasts on his trusty brass instrument, Anderson himself narrates more than sings, his voice wobbly and curiously devoid of enthusiasm.

Listening to him, I found myself yearning for a breed of rock storytelling that charges heedlessly over the top, hamming things up like there’s no tomorrow, like Hammer Horror overlord Christopher Lee’s symphonic metal outing from 2010, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, or anything by Manowar – or even Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge. After all, prop malfunctions aside, at least they put their backs into it. AP

Tiësto, Drive ★★★☆☆

Dutch DJ and producer Tiësto's seventh album does what the title suggests: it throbs, pulses, and pounds with a propulsive drive. Layered with heavily manipulated, digitised vocals (including those of high-profile guests including Karol G, Charli XCX, Ava Max and Tate McRae), Tiësto (Tijs Michiel Verwest) has crafted a near-perfect, commercially savvy house album. It's the sort of polished, unchallenging dance pop that churns from speakers in Topshop. Befittingly, one of the key singles, 10:35 was “a collaboration” with a luxury Dubai resort. Collaboration, commercial deal... whatever. Still, there’s some bangers.

The sultry grind of Hot in It, featuring Charli XCX, is a vocoder-affected, hyper-feminine ode to “rocking it, dropping it”… and showing an ex what they’re missing. At under three minutes, it isn't exploring new ground or offering a journey. It's the sonic equivalent of a chunky, strawberry-iced, cream-filled donut. Which, to be fair, might best describe this whole album. 

It's great insofar as it does nothing challenging or off-brand for the icon of EDM, who has been in the game for 30 years. But that's the problem. Partnered with a phenomenal pop talent in Colombian star Karol G, Tiësto could have pushed into some new, exploratory territory but instead, he gives her a bland beat and a couple of meaningless lines in English to repeat. The recent Tiësto-less Karol G and Shakira duet TQG that blends fiery reggaeton, sertanejo and dubby trapstep is far more impressive.

Nineteen years ago, Tiësto delivered Adagio for Strings – a blueprint for trance – that sounds like an entire orchestra delivering a melancholic minor key fugue from deep underground, blitzed through with echoing, serrated synths and, at 140 beats per minute, is the ultimate running song. It was a defining moment in EDM. When Tiësto remixed The White Lotus theme song in February this year, he reminded us of his trance mastery. If only Drive had more grunt (and trance), but alas, it sounds more like the soundtrack to a car ad. Cat Woods

Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant performing last May - Harry Herd/WireImage
Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant performing last May - Harry Herd/WireImage

Pet Shop Boys, Lost EP  ★★★★☆

Accompanying the new 2023 edition of their new book, Annually, which features journal entries and unseen photos from the first leg of Pet Shop Boys’ Dreamworld greatest hits tour, new EP Lost – a collection of tracks originally intended for their last album Super – is an articulate look at the state of the world today.

The pummelling beats of Super remain on this new EP, as does the politically-charged narrative. However, on Super’s The Dictator Decides there was an element of sympathy and self deprecation for the narrator – an anonymous political leader that was disillusioned and longing for the revolution that would end his miserable reign. On Lost’s Living In The Past however, there is no sympathy to be found when it comes to warmongering megalomaniacs.

Case in point, Vladimir Putin. Written in response to the situation in the Ukraine, this contemplative track is written from the perspective of Putin with lyrics such as “I'm the living embodiment of a heart of stone / a human monument to testosterone/ Though inside I'm dead / It's too late to lose”.

Whilst there was an element of resignation in The Dictator Decides, the mood of Living In The Past is unequivocally defiant and belligerent. The track explores how history is repeating itself with Putin’s crimes against humanity and it paints the picture of the unimaginable fear and suffering that his dictatorship has caused.

There is a change of pace and sonic shift with the four other tracks on Lost and it’s back to (dance) business with Kaputnik, a rousing anthem about a bleak end of a relationship. Pacey and at times, slightly menacing, it has a sense of urgency and a deliciously memorable refrain with cutting lines like: “I'll never recognise your new independence / I'll say you wish you had lost all you had”.

With one sucker-punch line, the band use tanks as a metaphor to expose the brutal similarities between love and war: “My tanks will be driving to park on your lawn / They'll crush all your flowers with radios blaring”. Emma Harrison