In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
Confession: I was not happy when Everything But the Girl traded in their jangly, moody, melodic guitar pop to “go electronic” in the mid-’90s. While I wouldn’t equate it to what Dylan purists apparently felt when he infamously decided to “go electric” back in the ’60s, my eternally ’80s teen self thought it sucked and felt downright betrayed. EBTG had been one of my absolute favorite bands, and here they were forsaking their nerdy identity to go hang with the cool kids, leaving behind the introspective and geeky brethren and sistren who loved them.
The song that changed it all, “Missing,” began its life innocently enough. It was just another perfectly constructed, poetic and winsome track on an album that was chock-full of them, 1994’s Amplified Heart. This original version was released as a single, but only got as high as #69 on the UK pop chart. Then, in 1995, this crazy thing happened. The duo gave the track to DJ-Producer Todd Terry to remix for club play. But calling it a “remix” is underselling what it really was: a resurrection. Terry expertly sculpted “Missing” into an sleek, housed-up, heartbreaking dance anthem for the ages. It sold millions of copies all over the planet and has since become a permanent fixture on every “Best Songs of the ’90s” playlist in existence.
The success of “Missing” paved the way for the duo’s stylistic shift from earthy acoustic sounds to cooler electronic ones. The duo debuted the updated sound on their very next album, 1996’s Walking Wounded; its heartbreaking charms were undeniable, and all it took was one listen for me to fall back into the fold of hardcore EBTG fandom, never to depart again. Tracey (Thorn) and Ben (Watt) were still EBTG, after all, and the songs were as regal, poetic, and beautiful as they had ever been, even in this new and different guise (inside joke there for you EBTG nerds), a guise they maintained until they decided to close the book on the EBTG partnership in 2000 and just focus on their respective solo endeavors.
Now the reason I bring all this history this up is to note that pretty much all of the covers they did were recorded before this famous stylistic change; hence, their sound harkens back to the jangly days. Fact is, they pretty much stopped doing covers once they started exploring the electronic/dance side of things. So by default, the best EBTG covers all happened during the era we’ll call EBTG b.c. (before clubland), as opposed to the latter-day incarnation, EBTG a.d. (after dance).
In keeping with the longstanding tradition of all pop music ever, the most popular EBTG covers aren’t necessarily the best ones. Their cute ‘n’ groovy version of Cole Porter standard “Night And Day” and jaunty run-through Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York City” are nice, as is their duet on Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train.” But if you want to hear EBTG at their interpretative best, swivel the chair around from the openly cool, famed and critically acclaimed and cast an ear toward the unabashedly POP heartbreakers–Mom favorites and oddball deep cuts. Let’s get driving…
P.S. I should note we are not addressing songs Tracey and Ben covered as solo artists; that’s a journey for another day.
Everything But the Girl – Time After Time (Cyndi Lauper cover)
The subject of what seems like ten trillion YouTube covers as well as a surprise visitor within a fever dream I once had, Cyndi Lauper’s 1984 #1 “Time After Time” is an undeniable, certifiable pop standard (as well as an ineffably beautiful song). The EBTG version was part of their exquisite 1992 Covers EP and is unquestionably one of the absolute finer takes on “Time”… it might even be the finest. Ben Watt serves up some pleasingly sweet and spidery guitar lines, but it’s Tracey’s vocal that lifts the song to its home in the heavenly heights. There is something exceptionally intimate about her delivery here, the way she whispers the verse, then turns up the volume and belts on the chorus. It sounds sublimely spontaneous, like Tracey is singing along to “Time After Time” as it plays on the radio during a long car journey. This, future intrepid “Time” cover-ers, is how it’s done.
Everything But the Girl – My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains (Captain Beefheart cover)
Welcome to “My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains,” the Captain Beefheart song for people who can’t get quite into Captain Beefheart (guilty here, please don’t hate me Beef-heads). The eccentric, soulful manifesto about an unstoppable quest for that elusive something (person, place, feeling, all fit the story) originally appeared on the Captain’s 1972 album Clear Spot. Warm, weird, and beautiful, it has been honored and blessed with not one but two handsome covers. There is the fine 1977 take by legendary art-poppers The Tubes ….and then there is this beauty, courtesy of EBTG in 1993. It has to be said the lyrics don’t sound nearly as quirky coming out of Tracey’s mouth as they do the Captain’s. The way she croons “My arms are just two things in the way, until I can wrap them around you” sounds genuinely heartfelt and earnest as opposed to, you know, funny, like it does on the original. “My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains” is a true sleeper, an unassuming secret, a cult favorite, a bona fide deep cut…and maybe, just maybe, the best cover EBTG have ever done.
Everything But the Girl – Kid (Pretenders cover)
There is so much to love about the Pretenders stone cold classic “Kid.” From Chrissie Hynde’s pleading vocal to James Honeyman-Scott’s captivating guitar line, it’s exceptionally beautiful for what is basically a jangly old pop-rock song. In 1985 EBTG next-leveled it, slowing it down, opening its veins, and turning it into a ravishing mournful rainy day ballad. It’s sadder and more introspective than the original and lays bare the song’s heartbreak to perfection. And those piano interjections from Ben positively glisten.
Everything But the Girl – Don’t You Go (John Martyn cover)
Anti-war ballad “Don’t You Go” was the last track on folk-soul-jazz visionary on John Martyn’s somewhat polarizing 1981 album Glorious Fool. The album was produced by Phil Collins and more popped-out than Martyn’s previous work; thus, not as favored by some of his hardcore fans (though frankly, it’s all kinds of awesome). The fact that out of all the wondrous Martyn songs in existence, Tracey and Ben chose to cover album closer and certifiable deep cut “Don’t You Go,” is a testament not only to the song’s deep dark beauty, but to their own innate musical nerdiness. It’s a genuinely inspired and eclectic choice. The original Martyn version is hauntingly beautiful, all simple spare keys and gorgeous, spectral vocalizing. In their 1984 cover, EBTG turn it gently sideways, molding it into a somber gospel hymn that suggests there is no tomorrow. In other words, they turn “Don’t You Go” into a Nico song. It is as Nico as anything Nico herself ever recorded. It is doomy amazing and scary good. It is capable of inspiring fantastical wishes that Tracey will someday record an album of Nico covers. We’ll take it.
By the way, if “Don’t You Go” sounds kind of familiar to you eagle-eared EBTG fans, that’s because a germ of its melody and sentiment are employed in the song “Sean” from the fabulous 1985 album Love Not Money. Check it out here.
Everything But the Girl – I Don’t Want To Talk About It (Crazy Horse/Rod Stewart cover)
Rod Stewart was a popular guy around the Thorn household when Tracey was a kid. In a 2007 interview she described the widespread familial infatuation this way: “I do have a huge fondness for Rod Stewart, which stretches right back to my childhood, when he was a favorite of my entire family – starting with my brother, who was a big fan of the Faces and used to go and see them at the Rainbow, wearing a knotted silk scarf round his wrist and extending even as far as my mum, who I think fancied Rod. I found that inexplicable at the time (I was about 10) but I recently saw some old footage of him on stage circa 1973 and I could see what she meant….” Ah yes, who among us hasn’t shared a creepy mutual musical crush with the entire family at some point in their lives? Whose Mom didn’t think Rod was hot?
Rod’s schmaltzy-sad-slow dance cover of Crazy Horse’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It” was a UK #1 in 1977. And in super-meta style, exactly ten years later, the EBTG cover of his cover also rose to the top of the pop charts (well, almost, I mean it got as high as #3, but still, that’s pretty top-ish). It is, of course, a shimmering beauty, featuring a soaring vocal from Tracey, gorgeous picking by Ben, and some genuinely heavenly harmonizing. But you know what the coolest thing about this cover is? How openly it crushes on Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.” Listen close and you will hear its unmistakable strains following Tracey down the main road and straight into the swoon-some ether. Now how beautiful is that?