tremble clef

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Tracey Thorn, "Raise The Roof" (2007)

Back in the 80s, Alison Moyet admitted that a main reason why Yazoo disbanded, if I remember right, had to do her sense that Vince Clark's synthpop compositions were too limiting for her voice. I'm not sure I'll ever agree with a generalization that electronic music is somehow easy to sing, or "unsoulful," but that singers like Alison often feel that it is, is a valid enough perspective.

I don't know if Tracey Thorn ever feels the same way -- if not about the first half of Everything But The Girl's career, then about their second, dance act incarnation. It's less likely, given her solid (professional and personal) relationship with Ben Watt, and the fact that she writes maybe a third or quarter of the band's material anyway.

Nevertheless, one of the most interesting things about Out Of The Woods, Tracey's lovely new solo album, is how vocally unrestrained she seems. The differences aren't, to be sure, drastic or immediately noticeable: one of the reasons why the album is so anticipated is because Tracey's voice has been so missed, and many people seem predisposed to liking the album for that reason. And there it is, in all its familiar glory.

But what is subtly new about Tracey's singing is how much more she relies on her falsetto. We've heard Tracey's higher register before, of course, having previously gotten one or two lines (in "Wrong" or "The Future Of The Future," say) where she hits those high notes. Then, most sustainedly and memorably, the terrific title track of 1999’s Temperamental kicks off with a falsetto chorus, before Tracey switches back for the verses. But somehow, on "Temperamental," her falsetto actually sounded false, disconnected from her regular voice. (Indeed, there are still days when I harbor doubts about whether those sections are Ben-voiced.)

On Out Of The Woods, Tracey's falsetto appears with abundance and abandon -- and more notably, she appears to have freshly mastered the transitions in and out of that pitch. The album kicks off with an entire song sung in that register: the breathtakingly beautiful "Here It Comes Again," a lullaby of sorts about some unnamed entity -- a ray of light? -- that must, to a child, always seem magically just out of reach. (This is probably the song Tracey describes on her myspace as "The Carpenters on acid," but it reminds me as much of ABBA: specifically, "Like An Angel Passing Through My Room," but perhaps with the lyrical content of "Slipping Through My Fingers.")

With that daring opening, the rest of the Out Of The Woods sets about proving how seamless Tracey can use that falsetto in conjunction with her regular voice. The hookiest vocal part of the single "It's All True" is not the chorus ("And it's all true/And it's all true,” in case you've forgotten, which is easy), but the pre-chorus. There, Tracey sings a series of phrases that are, to be honest, probably fairly meaningless. But, oh, how she sings them, each succeeding word seemingly at a higher pitch than the predecessor: "Close your eyes. Count to ten. Turn around. Back again. Hit the floor. Then once more." And then, stretched as far as it can stretch: "I'm still here.” This pattern, whereby Tracey allows one word or line to climb on another, or oscillate between high and low, repeats itself on several other tracks: "Reaching for that feeling/Hands up to the ceiling." It hardly needs saying, but in those falsetto moments, Tracey sounds even more fragile and melancholic than ever. It's what makes the already stunning "A-Z," an in-spirit sequel to "Smalltown Boy," even more so: the falsetto segment here is short and isolated ("Human kindness/Where you're gonna find it?”), but effectively conveys just how tremulously desolate its protagonist feels, in the face of schoolyard bullying, to be driven into making plans to run away. "More fragile and melancholic": I hadn't thought it possible, but Tracey's voice is truly more adept than ever at invoking those affects.

Out Of The Woods is not a perfect album. I'm a bigger fan of slow songs than the average poptimist, but those who observe that the album needs one more stomper -- right now, aside from "It's All True," only "Get Around To It," "Grand Canyon" (an obvious second single if it can be edited down), and "Raise The Roof" (just about) qualify as such -- have a point. As do those people who more specifically note that the middle stretch of the album (from "Hands Up To The Ceiling" to "Nowhere Near") is too draggy and unvarying in tempo. Sure, "Easy," with its booming stutter beat over a repeating keyboard riff, does its best to seem as if it's breaking up a run of ballads, but I suspect that, for most people, it won't. One result is that the beautiful "Nowhere Near," with the most devastatingly gorgeous brass band backing since Pet Shop Boys' "Indefinite Leave To Remain," in particular, risks getting buried in that sequence and overlooked by most listeners.

Further, one of the stompers is a bit of a misfire. I'm not a big fan of Arthur Russell -- especially because of his canonization by today's discopunk acts -- so perhaps I'm not predisposed to like Tracey's cover of his "Get Around To It." But issues of my taste aside, objectively the track is all wrong for Tracey: not only is the flatness of the bassline out of place on a record that's otherwise round and bouncy, the song is lyrically too participatory to fit in with the other songs on the album. Tracey's forte has always been her air of resignation and faux detachment: often she seems like she surveys but never directly takes part in the events she's watching. ("A-Z" is narrated from that stance: "Some things never seem to change/Kids still call each other names/Should get better/But it's sad and strange." If Tracey appears in the song, it's possibly only as the mother who doesn't know that her kid has bought a bag in readiness to run away. Of course, often the implication is often that she is really singing about herself: "Falling Off A Log" for example includes the memorable observation that "you're been sleeping with the wrong man," but it's probable that by "you," she means "I.") But "Get Around To It," with its "sex with you, being right next to you…" lines, therefore is too in the moment, and consequently sticks out like a sore thumb.

But ten out of eleven is a great batting average, and the album ends especially strongly with the one-two punch of "By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down And Wept" (melodramatic literary title, check) and my current favorite song from the record, its closer, "Raise The Roof." This may seem strange, because the track has, for the album and perhaps even for Tracey, an uncharacteristically "up" lyric about seizing the day and thus certain affinities with "Get Around To It." But unlike the latter, "Raise The Roof" is about getting ready to be in the moment, to live life -- but for the duration of the song, it never actually is or does. Indeed, Tracey is typically coy about whether she is even addressing herself in, and with, the track, which begins in the second person ("What you do/Raise the roof/Everybody wants you to") before moving into the first. When it does, it is to worry that the moment for seizing has passed: "All those years I wasted/Sitting on my own/Think what I could have tasted/If I only known/Why did I wait?/Why did I wait?/Don't tell me it's too late." Throughout the song, Tracey uses her falsetto much as she does on the rest of the album -- one moment in, one moment out. "Don't mean a thing/Unless you care." Here, the promise of finally being able to let go -- to finally taste it -- dovetails beautifully with her soaring voice. That's always been the case with Tracey: when all else fails or fades, there's always The Voice -- now, in several registers as well -- but more often, as is the situation here, we get That Voice on top of everything else being perfect.

6 Comments:

  • Well now I can't review this! :) I will though. Isn't Here It Comes Again a brilliant opening? It's the first thing you hear from her in 8 years and it's both familiar and totally new for her.

    I will have to call her on the wealth of cliches on the otherwise good Falling Off A Log.

    Raise The Roof, It's All True and Nowhere Near are my faves. Love how Piccadilly and Hands To The Ceiling are so EBTGish.

    Love the domestic wilderness artwork. It reminds me of a line from Desp Seeking Susan: "I thought you were dead!" "No, I was just in Jersey."

    By Blogger xolondon, at 10:20 PM  

  • PS Agreed on Arthur Russell. The original is not great and I expected her to whip it into shape. She didn't - it needs a remix. It needs to fizz more.

    By Blogger xolondon, at 10:21 PM  

  • [ahem] Psalm 137 [ahem]
    [ahem] Kitchens of Distinction's "On Tooting Broadway Station" [ahem]

    But TT's "Piccadilly Station" is indeed the best song on the album. I too am one of those superficial people who are often surprised that her voice lends itself to #1 dance hits, but perhaps I too am one of those superficial people who can't tell the difference between soullessness and melancholy.

    By Anonymous esque, at 10:37 PM  

  • Pshaw, xo. This review really just focused on Tracey's voice, so there's lots more to say about the album. Which I trust you will with panache.

    Trust me to miss a biblical reference, esque. Although maybe the greater sin was to miss the BONEY M REFERENCE. Good grief. And hee. But how great would it have been if Tracey decided to include her cover of "King's Cross" on the album as a kind of counterpoint to "Piccadilly"? Oh my god, in fact someone should do a whole theme album about British rail. I'll get on that right away.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 11:12 AM  

  • Make sure it has an instrumental techno track in Lindstrom style entitled "Circle Line."

    By Anonymous esque, at 9:55 PM  

  • Piccadilly is too noisy to weep easily and King's Cross is full of trannies!

    just sayin'

    PS What is the Biblical reference?

    By Blogger xolondon, at 8:15 PM  

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