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Ben Watt - North Marine Drive

Pre-Everything But The Girl and pre-beats Ben Watt makes a charming debut album with hints of gentle folk-jazz, Robert Wyatt and Nick Drake.

North Marine Drive cover

When you're young certain things are often more intense than when you've experienced them several times. This applies equally well to going abroad for the first time, seeing the Cup Final, or going to the dentist. By late adolescence you've probably fallen in and out of love, maybe moved out of your parents' house to go to college, and are now diligently working on your guitar licks on your cheap Les Paul copy - all the better to express yourself in the personal songs you've started writing. You look back at your earlier self as someone infinitely less mature than the young adult who stands posing for the camera, with your long greatcoat flapping in the breeze and with a suitably serious expression on your face. You don't realise it yet, but you're full of ideals that have a nasty habit of being kicked out of shape by harsh reality and you're just starting to discover how weak is the thread by which your happiness hangs. You still feel things deeply, of course, and can often fall into the daydreams that often ensnare the careless romantic outsider, but at the same time the constant shortfall in expectations means you're often inclined to introspection and melancholy thoughts. It can be a lonely and heart-breaking time when you're an unfulfilled sensitive and artistic late-adolescent. So, if you're Ben Watt, you put it all down on record.

Ben Watt made North Marine Drive a short time before teaming up with Tracey Thorn to form Everything But The Girl. From here on, his voice would often be overshadowed by his partner's, but here it stands naked and alone, and it expresses his angst-ridden loneliness perfectly. His cover of Dylan's wry and jaunty "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go" is given a straight reading here and his vocal delivery subtly subverts the irony of Dylan's reading. Although at the time heavily influenced by Joy Division, The Bunnymen and Robert Wyatt, his dad's love of jazz and his own liking for Nick Drake imbue this record with a minimalist folk-jazz feel with a few South American rhythms, which would later be pursued to greater effect with EBTG.

There can be few other albums which better express the tendency to romanticise the mundane in our lives. The title track contains such standard images of impermanence as scratching your name in sand and of broken castles, but these archetypes are also undercut by being placed alongside prosaic English place names, and each conceit affects the other. "Long Time No Sea" features the saddest piano lines since Drake's "Pink Moon", "Some Things Don't Matter" is a plea for love, while "On Box Hill" is a closely observed reverie on watching the world going by.

Although North Marine Drive lacks the consistencey of the Everything But The Girl albums which were soon to follow, it still has its own fragile charm: an album which is a curiously essential elegy to fast departing youth, but well worth revisiting.

Original article written by Steve Wilcock in Triste 1


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