Monday, March 2, 2009

The Twelve Tasks of ToffeeBoy - #2 Everything But The Girl



Just over a month ago, I came up with the (admittedly foolish) idea of posting a monthly … errr … post in which I would put forward the musical outpourings of a particular group for the consideration of my esteemed fellow ‘Spillers. The idea was that I would choose groups that meant a lot to me but, judging by the lack of success as far as A-listing was concerned, appeared not to mean diddley-squat to most of the rest of you.

Mulling over the names of the groups I might include, it occurred to me that there was a common theme which seemed to unite them – apart from the dondless silence that usually greets my nominations of their finest moments. Namely, that they were all purveyors of what might broadly be described as pop music.

So, when I came to writing up the introductory text for the first Task of ToffeeBoy, I suggested that I might alternatively have called it “In Defence of Pop”. Little did I know that those words would provoke one of the most interesting debates it’s ever been my pleasure to read on the ‘Spill, on the fascinating subject of how we might define ‘Pop Music’.

Chris started the ball rolling by asking,
“Just what exactly is this 'Pop Music' you're promoting? What identifies it as different from rock/indie/soul etc?”
and eight days and ninety one comments later, despite feeling intellectually drained, I was delighted to find that, thanks to my new-found understanding of the questions that needed answering, I was actually in a position to formulate some broad definitions.

There were some detractors. Japanther quite sensibly opted out of the debate stating:
Won't comment on the 'what is or isn't pop' debate as I think it's all subjective, if it's "pop" for you, then it's pop! Simple as that!
Which is a perfectly valid and defensible standpoint to take, but personally, I think there’s a need for some sort of agreement about what we mean when we use the term ‘Pop Music’ – otherwise we find ourselves in Humpty Dumpty territory, with nobody knowing what anyone else means:
When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.
I’m not in any way likening Japanther to Humpty Dumpty (heaven forefend!) but I do feel that successful communication requires the use of linguistic conventions. And if we’re going to talk about music in a meaningful way I strongly believe that we have to make some sort of attempt to define the genres which, after all, are thrown glibly into discussions and used as if we all know exactly what we’re talking about.

Of course music is an art form, not a science, so it’s never going to be possible to draw boxes around it. Thank Speng for Abahachi is all I can say! As a reminder for those of you who haven’t now got this paragraph printed out and pasted on your bathroom walls (and shame on you if that’s the case!) this is what our learned friend had to say on the subject:
In terms of Weberian sociology, I think we're looking for a polythetic rather than a monothetic model; that is, rather than a definition that says "pop = a, b and c", and rejects anything that lacks all three of those characteristics, we want a definition that says "pop = a sufficient number of a, b, c, d or e", such that abc and cde both count as pop although they have only a small amount in common.
So, if I understand this correctly, in order to define what we mean by Pop Music, we first need to come up with some broad definitions of the qualities that constitute Pop Music and then look for these qualities in songs which may or may not be definable as Pop Music. If, at the end of the exercise, enough of the boxes are ticked, then we can call it Pop Music.

No, I don’t think so either. Abahachi is absolutely right that this is the principle that needs to be adopted and on a certain level I’ve found myself doing this over the past few weeks: running a song through the Spill Particle Accelerator (aka the Large Abahadron Collider) to see whether it qualifies – with, it has to be said, some degree of success. But of course none of us really has the time, or indeed the inclination, to do this – if we do, we’re simply reducing art to a series of cold attributes – which rather detracts from the pure joy of music.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps this is all a pointless exercise. But I keep coming back to the still think it’s important to carry around with us an idea of what those boxes are – what qualities we’re looking for.

There was general agreement about the idea that defining what Pop Music isn’t, is often easier than defining what is. By chance rather than design, my choice of Microdisney worked quite well here - I think it’s fair to say that Microdisney are very much at the edge of Pop and as any good archaeologist will tell you, you have to be to find the edges of things to fully understand what you’ve got. I also found all the ‘Spillers’ top tens particularly useful for this purpose – the songs on the lists provided loads of good examples that helped me to formulate my ideas.

So, having gone back over the comments on the previous post and considered all the issues, I’ve managed to come up with a list of questions which need answering. But these, my friends, will have to wait for next month (or, since I was so late with this one, later this month) and the Third Task of ToffeeBoy.

Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the mellow, tuneful and, above all, thoughtful pop music of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn – aka, Everything But The Girl. The tracks here cover more than fifteen years from their debut album Eden in 1983 right up to 1999’s Tempremental. I love them and so does ToffeeGirl – how about you?

Oh, nearly forgot, I promised there would be a recommended album each month. I’ll go for Baby The Stars Shine Bright – it’s certainly the most poppy.

And here are some links:
Official site
Wikipedia
Last.fm

38 comments:

sourpus said...

Toffee, thanks for this. I connected with EBTG early on, through 'Pillows and Prayers', although at first it was more about buying up Ben's atmospheric and creative 'North Marine Drive' and 'Summer into Winter' (I gather old JAParkes was a fan of the latter) and Tracey's 'A Distant Shore', than EBGT themselves - until, of course, I heard Eden, which really stood out at the time.

Oddly enough, I then discovered that an old friend from my school (Sid) had answered an ad on the common room wall at Hull University (where he was studying)looking for a band to join and ended up becoming EBTG's Eden tour manager. I managed to smuggle a demo of one of my songs in to the dressing room (via Sid) and it was Tracey (yes, Tracey) who told Sid to pass the word on that she 'really liked it'. I was chuffed with this at 19 years old.

I stayed a fan of the band as far as 'Baby the stars shine bright' which I loved (treating it as a country album pretty much) but then fell out with the whole idea when 'Missing' went huge and it all went a bit 'coffee table' for my taste at that time, which was heading in a whole other direction.

I did get one chance though to ask Tracey if she remembered the demo I put back stage on the Eden tour, when I bumped into her at the bar at a fantastic Mark Eitzel gig at the now-vanished Shaw Theatre in August of 94 - you may recall that he supported EBTG on their Missing tour in the States and was more or less booed off nearly every night.

Did Tracey remember this event that meant so much?

Did she 'eck as like!

sourpus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DarceysDad said...

I think I used to go out with her . . .

DarceysDad said...

NO, NOT TRACY! I think I used to go out with Deirdre Eckerslyke!

B'dum tish! [Sorry]

Shoey said...

Like the odd tune, "Missing" was vey fine, but their albums tend to have the same effect on me as a bottle of Night Nurse. Great voice, but not sure they achieved pop status until the hook-up with Massive Attack.

99mm Graffiti Magazine said...

I simply meant, I like the pop music that never makes it past the cassette tape mix down or the valentine's day care package. Over thinking it kills it.

Chris said...

Well, TB, having asked that question, I now feel tied in to this brave adventure of yours. So I am listening to the playlist.

The first one takes me back to the period when I was subjected by my parents to James Last and other 'easy listening' stuff at the time I was exploring Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground etc. I know a lot of people with taste now champion easy listening but, for me, it's a step too far. Do many people find it difficult to listen? Where would the world be if all we had was easy artforms? (Not too far from where we are now, maybe...)

The second is a bit more interesting but there still seems to be an overriding desire to jingle for the sake of jingling.

The third is nice. And short. But I did think it may morph into Hallelujah at one point.

And the fourth is nice, too. Musically quite interesting just before the inevitable chorus repetition kicks in for the last minute.

Sorry, TB, I keep getting stuck with nice as the most appropriate description for these songs. Microdisney veered towards nasty on occasion and that kept my interest; this makes me feel so damned warm and cosy!

Missing has just come on and it is a bit different. I can't help feeling there should have been an attempt at a rap on it, to complete the genre-appropriation.

Walking Wounded is good. More contrast than the others (but still a few too many strings for my taste). It doesn't seem that original, though. Does it go on longer (and do something else) or is that the abrupt ending?

Hatfield 1980 is OK, too. Are they playing musical nostalgia or being up-to-the-minute?

Abahachi said...

BLOODY HELL. Once again, as with Carole's post, the system has just swallowed the fruits of half an hour's thought and composition. Since I was rather damning EBTG with faint praise, that is perhaps not such a bad thing, but still very very annoying...

EverythingButTheFrog said...

Needless to say I'm a huge fan. Love her voice, love the work she did with Massive Attack, love his voice. Just love them to pieces. Loved the playlist, Toffee. Phew! I'm all loved out now! FP

Abahachi said...

Take two... Missing is a true classic, pop through and through, and I like the Massive Attack tracks - not just because I like almost everything Massive Attack have ever done, but because they recognised something in her voice that worked perfectly on top of their beats and soundscapes. Walking Wounded and the rest of the post-Missing output are okay, but for me suffer from the music being a bit blander (and too many soporific strings, as Chris suggests), whereas I think it would have been more interesting to hear Tracy Thorn over some more radical beats, rather like Toni Halliday with Leftfield.

It's before Missing that things are interesting; I don't actually like the songs that much, and I'm not sure why. I feel that I ought to, because - and this isn't supposed to be an insult - they sound as if Watt & Thorn have read a manual on writing pop songs, and collected all the important ingredients, and followed all the instructions, and it's still come out of the oven flat. Pop music as souffle, light and fluffy and effortless except when it goes wrong for no obvious reason? Maybe it's just that I scarcely knew anything about EBTG until Missing, and so hear everything through that, but I can't help feeling that her voice isn't right for that music and the music isn't right for her voice; she needed to collaborate with Massive Attack, and he needed a new singer.

And the thing is, this isn't cynical manufactured pop, which you would expect to miss the point now and again, but pop crafted with love and devotion. Maybe pop needs to be cynical and manufactured so that it can take glory from transcending those origins...

ToffeeBoy said...

Thanks for all the comments and for keeping the 'What The Hell Is This Pop Music Of Which You Speak' debate going.

@ sourpus - I'm sure Tracey remembers you - it's probably just that the memories are too painful for her. Oh, what might have been ...

@ DsD - if you don't have anything sensible to say ... then, please continue with the bad jokes!

@ 99mm Graffiti Magazine - hello clouds, hello sky...

@ EBTF - I somehow knew you'd be on side with this! I can almost feel the love from here...

@ Shoey, Chris & Abahachi - thanks for listening and thanks for the fulsome comments. I was interested that you all felt that the music was bland - particularly the pre-Missing stuff: I can see where you're coming from and I think that if I'd come to EBTG from a different angle, I could potentially feel the same.

I think that, as we've discussed in previous threads, context is all important in music (pop or otherwise). This, by the way, is one of the reasons that I try never to dismiss any music as 'bad'. The first EBTG album came out the year after ToffeeGirl and I got married and their music has been part of our lives ever since.

The second point that interested me was that no one has mentioned the lyrics - to me, this is the key aspect of EBTG's music that raises them above the realms of 'easy listening'. Thoughtful, intelligent lyrics are so important to my enjoyment of music and I think that Ben and Tracey are supreme wordsmiths. If you feel up to it, have another listen to Pigeons In The Attic Room and The Night I Heard Caruso Sing in particular. Listen closely to the words and let me know what you think. I think there's something special there that more than compensates for any possible musical blandness.

Chris said...

I've listened to those two songs again - see how seriously I'm taking this! - but I can't say they moved me enough. In fairness, it's always the music and overall sound that grabs me (or not); words are something I listen to later. I can imagine that a personal resonance would enhance one's listening experience but, for example, I don't recall ever resorting to the Guinness after getting screwed and abandoned in an attic...

Sorry, TB. EBTG put the case for Pop having to be bland and/or blended. IMHO, of course.

DarceysDad said...

Oh I've got plenty to say, Toffee old chum, but I'm so far behind with both work and other music-based commitments, as well as chasing after two poorly little girls and a cat whose vet's bill is currently clicking upwards faster than a Manc taxi driver's meter.

Short version: Love TT's voice, appreciate BW's craft, v.fond of my 'B,TSSB' vinyl (all-time fave EBTG song is Come On Home), but somehow - for me anyway - the whole has always been less than the sum of its parts.

And I got me fingers severely burned in the discussion during the first of TB's 12 Tasks, so as I also don't really see EBTG as "pop" UNTIL they went beat-tastic, I'm staying out of this one!!

But enough already. frogprincess, if you're listening, I'm not ignoring your Disney questions - Things I Did On My Holidays Pt2 is on its way, honest . . . but not tonight.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ Chris - I'm immensely impressed (nay, honoured!) that you took the time to give them another listen. I suspect that the attic may be a metaphor but, let it pass, let it pass... I love the line "You drove me to drink, and I never had the courtesy to thank you".

ToffeeBoy said...

@ Dsd - enjoying the Disney stuff. I spent two happy weekends at Rat Central (aka Disneyland Paris) when the young MissToffees were much younger MissToffees (Christ, the older one has just started taking driving lessons which must surely make me ... err ... well, in a word ... 'old') so, where was I? Oh yes, I am insanely jealous of your trip to Paris and looking forward to more adorably cute pictures.

steenbeck said...

Toffeeboy, it's funny, because I remember hearing about EBTG, but I don't remember hearing any. (I think I'm the right age for them, I've just always been a bit oblivious). I'm part way through your list (I'm up to the Night I heard Caruso Sing) And I really really like it. A lot. I don't mean to compare it to B&S, precisely, but it reminds me of them, because it has lovely melodies, interesting instrumentation, and smart lyrics--which are all important things for me. Thanks for this, I'm really enjoying this list.

Chris said...

At the risk of saying something indefensible, I'm tempted to infer from the small sample of comments above that maybe EBTG play Girls' Pop. TB is the very obvious exception to this highly scientific analysis but he is rather stuck on TG, it seems.

Is there a Venn diagram with a set of 'Pop Music Girls Like' and another set of 'Pop Music Boys Like' , with quite a large overlap?

OK, rifles at the ready, take aim....

Japanther said...

Epic post TB! I won' re-ignite the "what-is-or-isn't-pop" debate as I think Abahachi provided a pretty good definition....although I would still argue that "pop" is different from other genres as it relates to a more general aesthetic or ideology or even just feeling rather than a particular musical style.....but maybe all genres do that too...hmm......

Will give feedback on the tracks tomorrow when I can get time to listen...but I fear I may be siding with Abahachi again on this one, but I promise to listen with an open mind.

and.....i'm not EGGaxctly like Humpty Dumpty but I do like to sit on walls and HATCH plans....sorry for the ROTTEN egg puns, i'm only YOLKing, I promise I won't CRACK any more.....

er...i'll get me shell....

Abahachi said...

I did mean to mention the lyrics, which I think are rather good - perhaps a little too good for 'pop', which tends to thrive on banality? One of the reasons why Missing is a great song is that it has a chorus you can pick up instantly, whereas of the songs on the list that I didn't previously know, there seemed to be memorable lines but not memorable whole choruses. An act you have to get to know to love, rather than the instant hit that I at least tend to associate with the 'pop' tag?

ejaydee said...

I followed the last debate but didn't contribute, and since pop appreciation is still a relatively new thing for me, I still don't have structured thoughts about it.
I knew Missing, but apart from a lot of mentions on RR, I hadn't heard anything else by EBTG, so thanks for that, I liked Hatfield 1980 the most I think.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ steenbeck - glad you're enjoying it. I'll put together a beginners' guide to EBTG tomorrow with a brief introduction to each of the albums.

@ Chris - I was thinking the same myself. Perhaps my reputation for liking cheesy music should be revisited - perhaps it's chick music I like.*

@ Japanther/Humpty - I look forward to hearing your views - positive or not.

@ Abahachi - very interested in what you said about the lyrics perhaps being 'too good for pop'. Isn't that the same argument DsD made about messages in pop music - which we rejected?

@ejd - fascinating to hear the views of someone so un-steeped in pop music - and particularly interesting that you picked out Hatfield as your favourite - I felt it was the weakest on the list so that just goes to show. Something. I'm not sure what...

* PLEASE note heavy irony. PLEASE!!! OK, I'll get me coat...

steenbeck said...

I just have to say, for the record, that I don't think of myself as liking music that chicks like, despite my, um chickness. New posters on RR always assume I'm a boy. I've always been like that. When I was a youngster I wanted to be an old man. I.do.not.like.chick.music.

Chris said...

Ka pow! Fair 'nuff.

steenbeck said...

Chris, I'm sorry, I was mostly being silly. (I guess it's all true though) And I was testing out the technique I learned when my keyboard was broken of using a lack of spaces for emphasis.

Japanther said...

OK, i've given the tracks a good listen now and i'm afraid I haven't been won around, I pretty much agree 100% with Abahachi.......there was nothing I hated about it, but it just didn't say anything to me either or grab me, which is what "pop" should do, whatever the style.....sorry!

Out of the tracks there, I liked "Anytown" the best for the (slightly!- and maybe that's the problem, they seem afraid to take the plunge and go all out, which results in the aforementioned blandness) rock-a-boogie feel and enjoyed the lyrics (but not the music) of "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing".
The beats behind "Walking Wounded" and "Hatfield 1980" were cool, but again they seemed content to drift along at the middle pace.....which is maybe the point....hmm...

Despite the above comments, thanks a lot for posting it and am definitely looking forward to what you've got up your sleeve for the next one!

Abahachi said...

Lyrics. Um. The more I think about this, the more complicated the whole issue gets, and the harder I find it to articulate what I felt about EBTG. I mean, I love lyrics, and all other things being equal would always prefer a song with decent words to one with pointless blethering - but at the same time I can't shake the feeling that the lyrics may be one of the crucial elements that determine whether or not something counts as 'pop'. It's not the contents - I have no problem with the idea of pop with a message, and as RR shows there are great pop songs about pretty well anything - but something else...

Hypothesis: pop is not just about a song having a sufficient number of pop-like attributes, but about the balance between those attributes. A song which over-emphasises the beat at the expense of, say, catchy chorus and musical hooks is less likely to be pop. A song which over-emphasises the lyrics, in which they become the central element rather than one element in balance with others, is less likely to be pop. Dylan was never pop. Cohen, even on I'm Your Man, was never pop.

This is actually quite personal for me, which may or may not be a good thing for the argument. I would love to write proper pop songs, and I don't feel I've ever succeeded (maybe one or two have come close) because in the end there is always too much emphasis on the lyrics - even when that's expressed negatively through a deliberate attempt at writing minimal and/or banal lyrics. It's not that the lyrics aspire to greatness, let alone poetry, but they are too dominant in the mixture of elements for the songs to work as pop. So it may well be that my reactions to EBTG are simply the projection of my own feelings of failure and inadequacy in this department...

Chris said...

We must applaud you again, TB, for this courageous attempt at whatever it is you are attempting to do. Aba's inference that pop shouldn't scare the horses (which, to be fair, I think you also included as part of your definition last time) really is the antithesis of all that rock'n'roll started out to be. And is certainly what puts me (and I suspect many others) off. My stepson has been playing Coldplay's Clocks on the piano recently because it is such a catchy piano riff. It has to be pop: my damned head won't let go. But musically it is derivative and repetetive, lyrically it is bobbins. I know you aren't promoting Martin's mob, TB, but EBTG seem to be in the same inoffensive area, hiding whatever darkness they may have inside a warm, well-produced cocoon. Respect, man!

@steen: no worries, I expected some reaction. BTW, don't you find it a little odd that one, now regular, RRer still insists on addressing you as male? (I'm sure you know who I mean.)

Abahachi said...

"Aba's inference that pop shouldn't scare the horses". Did I say that? I don't think I believe it if I did. And comparing EBTG with Coldplay is a far worse insult than anything I came up with. We'd do better to measure the popness of music in terms of its distance from Coldplay, in which case EBTG certainly score a respectable 4-5 at least.

Shoey said...

Now, now Abahachi, sneering at Coldplay is only going to upset the Shoeteens. Unlike ETBTG, Coldplay have that elusive element x, that enables them to be pop and popular, despite some dodgy lyrics.

Abahachi said...

Sorry, I'm un-donding again, aren't I? Actually I quite liked Clocks when it first came out. But, seriously, Coldplay as pop? Popular, undoubtedly.

Chris said...

Sorry Aba, did I extrapolate too far from 'A song which over-emphasises the beat at the expense of, say, catchy chorus and musical hooks is less likely to be pop. A song which over-emphasises the lyrics, in which they become the central element rather than one element in balance with others, is less likely to be pop.'? That seemed to imply that it all has to be balanced and, y'know, nice. Like Coldplay. Aren't they pop then? Sorry, I'm lost again.

Shoey said...

That's ok, Aba - but the trombone playing oldest one would be especially upset as she is fond of your podcasts. To me Pop has to be popular - thought what our own king of pop Mr. Toffee was using these threads to highlight some bands that should have been more popular than they were/are. But I'm often wrong about these things.

ToffeeBoy said...

Do you ever wish you hadn't started something? I was planning to start considering all the questions in the third Task of ToffeeBoy but since one of the main issues has come up again, I think I'll put my penn'orth in right now:

Does pop music have to be popular? My initial answer to this was a big, fat, resounding ‘yes’ but I think I’ve changed my mind. The term ‘Pop Music’ is of course derived from ‘popular music’ but it gradually dawned on me (OK, ToffeeGirl pointed it out to me) that popular here doesn’t mean ‘lots of people like it’ but rather that it’s music that’s liked by ‘the people’ as opposed to ‘classical music’, which isn’t!

So, I really don’t think that popularity enters into the equation: it can be Pop Music even if I’m the only person on earth who knows, or indeed, likes it. Agreed?

Abahachi said...

Ich bin das Volk!

ToffeeBoy said...

@ steenbeck - if you're still reading this, here (a little later than promised) is the ToffeeBoy guide to EBTG's extensive back catalogue:

Eden (1984) - Poppy, but with a jazzy/bossa nova feel to it. Standout tracks include Each And Everyone, Tender Blue and I Must Confess. Not released in US - instead and album called Everything But The Girl was issued including half the tracks from Eden together with some B-sides and other early recordings.

Love Not Money (1985) - Full of jangly guitars and much rockier than the debut. EBTG were very much in awe of The Smiths at the time and it shows (Johnny Marr even guested on one track - on harmonica!). Lots of intense social commentary in the lyrics (child poverty, Northern Ireland, women's rights etc.)

Baby The Stars Shine Bright (1986) - Perhaps over-produced by today's standards but my personal favourite nonetheless. Features a wall of orchestral strings but also returns to a more jazzy feel with the odd diversion into country and western.

Idlewild (1988) - Accusations of a middle-of-the-road feel stick quite well. Personally, as I've said elsewhere, it's the lyrics that lift it out of the easy-listening comfort zone. Some of their best, most poignant, moving lyrics are featured here.

The Language Of Life (1990) - More of the same really - perhaps more of a soul/jazz feel than the previous album and features Stan Getz on The Road. Overall, not one of my favourites.

Worldwide (1991) - I have to admit that I'd lost interest in EBTG by this stage and only really discovered this album in the last few years. Hmmm...

Amplified Heart (1994) - This largely acoustic album featured the original version of Missing. The tarck was remixed by Todd Terry and the rest, as they say, is history. Ben Watt discovered beats and EBTG became essentially a trip-hop band from here on in.

Walking Wounded (1996) - Their biggest album as far as album sales/chart success is concerned. Electronic beats and trippy music. Not to everyone's taste and not really to mine - but the title track is exceptional.

Temperamental (1999) - More of the same - don't really know it that well.

ToffeeBoy said...

Oops - missed out:

Acoustic (1992) - it's ... errr ... an acoustic album ...

steenbeck said...

Thanks, Toffeeboy, still reading. I'll give it a listen.

And I just wanted to say (if you're still reading) that I thought your capricorn comment on the 'Spill was perfectly phrased and very funny, and I don't understand the reaction at all. In fact, I don't understand people who come storming into RR, all contentious, with a chip on their shoulders. I'd been reading quite a while before I dared to post anything, and I felt quite shy when I finally did.

ToffeeBoy said...

@ steenbeck - thanks ;o)