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The Only Way Out Is Down (Motherwest)

Well this could have gone very badly.

An EP of Everything But The Girl songs done by a chamber group is an intriguing idea, with the potential for a bit of artsy wankery adding a frisson of apprehension.

That the songs come from the latter half of the English band’s career, when they emphasised rhythm and the potential for dance, but are now arranged at half speed (or less) and the production modes pared back, raises the danger even as it makes perfect sense.

Doing all that while having Tracy Thorn’s voice replaced principally by a crooning man who sometimes leans more to speak-singing, is bold. Some of us could listen to Thorn sing the shopping list and be happy, and while her partner Ben Watt always contributed some lead vocals, these songs and the band were defined by Thorn’s voice.

The risk takers here are Erik Laroi, the principal element of New York art ensemble Soft News, and arranger Charles Newman (whose work with Magnetic Fields resonates here), and they give the string quartet basis a better than even chance of succeeding.

In Lullaby Of Clubland, Newman posits agitated cello against both picked and bowed violin at the beginning and release/relief only arrives after a minute. That release is merely half fulfilled though, the temperature here chilled. This is the end of an ambiguous night.

Wrong is smoother but also cuts against the expectation of warmth, the intent speculative against the interplay of Laroi’s voice in the foreground with that of Lorraine Lelis in the background.

Laroi pitches Five Fathoms nearer Thorn’s open mind about the night around and ahead of her, even as he sings “the only way out is down”, to which Lellis responds “I want to love more”. It is the strings which keep pricking us with the suggestion (more hinted than stated) of the thin line between comfort and disturbance in a walk through a city night.

It is in Single that voice and instruments forge a single path, splashes of melancholy alternating without ever taking the full dive into melodrama. Even here though, the romantic flourish serves to keep assumptions just at bay.

So the initial fears were unfounded: taking Thorn and Watt’s songs down a new path suggestive of more brambles than ferns, works well. And Laroi is smart enough to see that four tracks is just right for this trip.

SPOTIFY: Listen to Soft News – The Only Way Out Is Down here

APPLE MUSIC: Listen to Soft News – The Only Way Out Is Down here

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