Sunday, April 13, 2014

Watt's application: Ben Watt - Hendra

Teenage years are, I suspect, for everyone a turgid mix of boredom, agitation, stress and abject horror. School, acne, sexual frustration and hair growing in “the fuzzy area” are enough, for starters, for any teenager to wish to seek solace in some form of opiate.

For me, music was the drug of choice, even though my teenage years coincided with the early 1980s, a period which has traditionally come in for revisionist scorn. There was some truly awful music around, not helped by pop music discovering over-production, the Simmons electric drum kit (yes, EastEnders theme tune, still...), chorused guitars and enough hairspray to burn its own hole on the ozone layer.

But amid the dross there was plenty to keep adolescent spirits alive, one highlight being Everything But The Girl's Eden. Bracketed - I thought unfairly - as part of the cod-jazz revival associated with Sade, The Style Council, Blue Rondo à la Turk and Matt Bianco, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s debut album as a professional (and conjugal) couple was the perfect anecdote to the sugary, ra-ra skirt-wearing crap being peddled in the name of pop music in 1984.

Thorn's torch-song vocals and Watt's languid songwriting, Eden - and the brass riff that launched its opening track and standout hit Each And Everyone - helped deliver me from Keynsian economics, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Hamlet or whatever it was I was trying to grapple with on any given evening of O-level homework.

While EBTG ceased to be a working group in 2000, amazingly it is only now that Ben Watt is releasing Hendra, his first solo album since North Marine Drive 31 years ago. To say that it is an album rooted in the furthest reaches of Watt's vinyl collection might suggest something.

“The musical approach is a return to the folk-rock and electronic influences of my growing up,” he says, citing the era “when Neil Young and Brian Eno were new discoveries.”  There is indeed a little Young and hints of Eno, but the overall tone of Hendra is that of the cheesecloth-and-denim vibe of the LA canyons, with a few – for me in any case – delightful nods to John Martyn and Nick Drake, along with the guiltier pleasures of channeling David Gates, the musical accompaniment of the Liebfraumilch and cubed cheese and pineapple on cocktail sticks so beloved of suburban house parties in the 1970s.

Hendra's title track plays the keynote, opening with analogue synth and acoustic guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd's Is There Anybody Out There? on The Wall. However, such prog suggestion soon gives way to a gentle but reflective ballad on life.

For a few brief bars, Forget suggests another downbeat contemplation, before breaking into a glorious West Coast workout that, despite the Californian allusions of its electric piano and close harmonies, contains the beautiful line "The Sussex Downs after rainfall is as lovely as it gets". It also brings to the fore Watt's use throughout the album of Suede's Bernard Butler, whose lead guitar regularly adds textured bite to the softer coastal landscape, especially when he lets loose on Nathaniel with the six-stringed snap of Neil Young at his grungiest.

Watt has never been the strongest vocalist in the world - on Eden the tracks he sang on stood out against those of Thorn's - but on Spring its softness actually adds to the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter vibe, with its lyrically simple celebration of the season.

On Golden Ratio Watt is at his most John Martyn-like, doffing a cap to Solid Air with a beautiful rhythmic blend of acoustic guitar, Danny Thompson-like contrabass and electric piano. Like the Martyn's seminal track, it is spaciously infectious, deserving to be played loudly while taking an open-top drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

Watt says the lyrics on Hendra are “very personal”, prompted in part by the creative process of writing a book about his parents, Romany and Tom, as well as by the death of his half-sister last year. But don't think this an album of cathartic wallowing.

Sure, there is a running theme of contemplative recollection, but much is projected thought. On Matthew Arnold's Field, with its stripped back arrangement of voice and electric piano, tells the story of a man walking through rural Oxfordshire to spread his wife's ashes. On The Gun, Watt comments on American gun control (or lack of) through the perspective of someone who has lost a loved one to the senselessness of a stray bullet in an unspecified gated community.

There's another subtle nod to John Martyn on The Levels, with its sound effects of the great outdoors (Martyn's Small Hours was recorded late at night in the countryside to capture the acoustic ambience). It is, simply, an exquisite track, intimate and yet expansive, relaxed and evocative, an expression of the sheer joy of breathing in fresh country air. Of note is the pedal steel guitar work of David Gilmour. Much hailed for the fluidity of his soloing on Pink Floyd's records and his own, Gilmour's cameo here highlights his virtuosity when adding dreamy textures simply by sliding a metal bar over strings.

Hendra is not an album to rock out to. That's not and, I suspect ever will be, Ben Watt's style anyway, at least this side of his alternative career as a DJ. Over the course of its ten songs, Hendra presents a spectrum of consideration of the middle part of one's life, without it becoming another fiftysomething pop star taking a downbeat view of the first act while making the transition into the second.

It could even be seen as the sequel to North Marine Drive, though Watt didn't envision it being so. What hasn't changed, and certainly hasn't diminished over more than 30 years, is the unpretentious subtlety of his songcraft. Like recent albums from John Mayer and Ethan Johns, it celebrates a certain kind of songwriting from the past ("a folk-rock record in an electronic age", Watt says), mixing it with modern themes and a quintessential Englishness that neither pretends too hard or leaps about saying "look at me". It does, however, say "listen to me". A joy from start to finish.

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