Release Date: Apr 29, 2014
Record label: Unmade Road
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
In the '90s Ben Watt took Everything But The Girl from gloomy bedsits to clubland's bright lights off the back of Todd Terry's remix of "Missing," then fully embraced the dance floor with his Lazy Dog night and his label, Buzzin' Fly. This conversion to dance music at the age of 30-something could have been interpreted as a mid-life crisis, the equivalent of trading in the family hatchback for a Ferrari. On his new solo album, we see Watt picking up his acoustic guitar again.
Ben Watt's second solo album (the first since 1983's North Marine Drive) sees him team up with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and Berlin-based producer Ewan Pearson for 10 unassuming songs about life, loss, grief and the like. There's an unmannered honesty to Watt's singing and lyrics, and numbers such as the opener, Hendra, and the bucolic The Levels – which features a turn from David Gilmour on slide guitar and charts the banal details of folding up a business, a life – are very affecting. John Martyn-esque tracks like Golden Ratio (lovely guitar from Butler here) are balanced by the riffing, declamatory Nathaniel.
Calling Hendra Ben Watt's first solo album in 31 years is true but it's also misleading. Watt was always active during those three decades, devoting himself first to Everything But the Girl -- the duo he had with his wife Tracey Thorn -- and once that group came to a creative end around the turn of the millennium (the pair remained married), he steadily worked as a DJ, sometimes releasing dance compilation albums, while also authoring the acclaimed 1996 book Patient. Of these two endeavors, Patient may be the closest touchstone to Hendra, Watt's 2014 album, as the record is hushed and intimate, often suggesting not so much a confessional as a quiet, impassioned conversation with an old friend.
Stark, beautiful return for the solo Everything But The Girl man…A lot has happened in the 31 years since Ben Watt’s first (last) solo album, North Marine Drive. Empires have fallen, musical revolutions have come and gone. Watt hasn’t been idle, of course. He played with Tracey Thorn in Everything But The Girl for 20 years, and did another decade as a club DJ and boss of the dance label Buzzin’ Fly.Then there’s the real-life stuff.
Ben Watt's early collaborators were Kevin Coyne and Robert Wyatt, and his 1983 debut album, North Marine Drive, drew comparisons with John Martyn. Thirty-one years later, his follow-up album, too, nods to the English alt-folk of the late 60s and early 70s. It features Bernard Butler (abrasive on Nathaniel) and Dave Gilmour (new agey on The Levels). It's rooted in southern England: while the opening song on North Marine Drive was called On Box Hill, Hendra has Matthew Arnold's Field, about scattering a loved one's ashes at an Oxfordshire beauty spot; and Forget, which recounts walks on the Sussex Downs.
Throughout his 30-plus years in the business, Ben Watt has amassed enough changes, struggles, and accomplishments for several lifetimes. Along with his long-term partner and current spouse, Tracey Thorn, he spent 15 years as half of the influential, eclectic pop group Everything But the Girl, whose career in itself underwent an entire progression of stylistic, commercial, and creative ups and downs and twists and turns. During that time, he also was nearly killed by a rare autoimmune disorder, and published an acclaimed memoir of the experience.
In 1983, Ben Watt released his debut solo album, North Marine Drive. In the 31 years since its release, Watt has been half of one of the most enduring partnerships in music, Everything But The Girl, transformed himself into a highly sought after DJ and remixer, set up a much respected record label, Buzzin’ Fly, written two affecting memoirs, and contracted a rare auto-immune disease which left him close to death and missing most of his small intestine. So, in retrospect, it’s not so surprising that it’s taken over three decades to record a follow-up to North Marine Drive.
When Everything But the Girl ended, Ben Watt turned DJ and opened a label. But the songwriter and singer's first solo album since 1983 doesn't parade beats: It unleashes Southern California, London and Nashville sounds played by a rotating studio band, with softly killer guitars by Bernard Butler and David Gilmour. The songs occupy their own modern spaces with a raging peacefulness.
If you're a fan of Everything but the Girl's chilled-out sophisti-pop, Ben Watt's second solo album might also do it for you. Watt was one-half of that successful 90s English duo, but it was the other half, Tracey Thorn, with her smooth, melancholy vocals, who gave the project its distinct allure. Watt is a good singer, too, but not nearly as remarkable.
With one critically lauded album under his belt (1983’s North Marine Drive, featuring tracks produced by Robert Wyatt and Kevin Coyne) Ben Watt put his promising career as a folk troubadour on the back burner. That was because he joined forces with singer Tracey Thorn and formed the duo Everything But The Girl, who went on to experience massive critical and commercial success. Now, three decades later, Watt – who’s added author and record label boss to his CV – has picked up from where he left off and delivered a highly personal, folk-rock-hued solo offering whose creation was initiated by the death of his sister.
The first sound on Ben Watt's new album, Hendra, is about what you'd expect it to be: a lone, elegiac synthesizer chord fading into being, both chilly and pregnant with implications. It feels like the beginning to an offering of cloudy, serpentine dance music, the kind that Watt has become synonymous with since his group Everything But the Girl shed its jazz-pop chanteuse skin on its way to the club in the early 1990s. But that chord is a red herring.
“I’m up for selling the business/my heart isn’t in it/without your face over the counter”; England is a nation of struggling shopkeepers, and on his beautiful, bittersweet solo LP, Ben Watt embraces themes of disillusion and personal loss to echo a countrywide solemnity. It’s been thirty one years since the release of his folky solo debut North Marine Drive, and the three ensuing decades have seen him form one half of Humberside heroes Everything But the Girl, launch a record label and become a revered DJ. Now, he’s embarked on two new creative projects; his second book Romany and Tom, and a new solo record Hendra, which sees him return to his folk roots.
For the last ten years or so, Ben Watt has been best known as a DJ and label boss; for the two decades prior, he was co-leader of the criminally underrated pop duo Everything But the Girl. For Hendra, only his second solo album in the past thirty years, Watt revisits the intelligent soft pop of his EBTG years, adorning his tunes with warm keyboards, tasteful guitar and measured, tuneful singing. “Forget” and “Nathaniel” rock politely, with some teeth to the six-string licks driving the latter, but they’re exceptions.