BEN WATT : FEVER DREAM
Label : Unmade Road
Release Date : April 8th, 2016
Length : 43:07
Review (AllMusic) : With 2014's Hendra, DJ, producer, label owner, and author Ben Watt resumed his career as a solo singer/songwriter after 31 years as a collaborator with Tracey Thorn (his wife) in Everything But the Girl. Fever Dream proves Hendra wasn't just a one-off to scratch an artistic itch. The complications of life events - the death of his parents and step-sister, the changing nature of long-term relationships among his friends and family - needed to be made sense of, and the songs wouldn't leave him alone. With Bernard Butler returning on lead guitar, drummer Martin Ditcham, and upright bassist Rex Horan, Watt delivers ten new songs that delve into the joys, conflicts, ends, and renewals of love of many kinds. Self-produced, these songs are rendered with Watt's requisite grace and attentiveness, not only to sound and words, but also to musical inspirations. Opener "Gradually" engages his love for Neil Young and Crazy Horse with Butler's distorted, stuttering electric guitars, sweet vocal harmonies, and lyrics that reference the loss of self that occurs with the first rush of love, and the doubt that emerges as time passes: "No words are on your lips/we pass like silent ships/Can I prove we exist/Where are the hours we missed/This summer night is clear/I still want you near/I don't know where I am/or who I used to be." The title track reflects the weight of everyday life on passion. It contains a jazzier feel, with hand percussion and slippery guitar chords that recall John Martyn in his post-Grace & Danger period; Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C. Taylor makes a guest vocal appearance. The grain in each of their voices etches its own stark portrait of romantic uncertainty. The tone of the recording shifts halfway through; the themes become more accommodating if not celebratory. The music is more delicate, but no less poignant. Watt's love of the iconic hybrid of Pentangle's British folk-jazz emerges in the gorgeous "Faces of My Friends." In "Running with the Front Runners," a dreamy bossa rhythm slips effortlessly amid acoustic and electric guitars and sparse, atmospheric keyboards. Set-closer "New Year of Grace," with backing vocals from Marissa Nadler, counterbalances the doubt and darkness in "Gradually." Fingerpicked, minor-key acoustic guitar, and a well-placed, intermittent cello, flute, and upright bass underscore Watt singing about the unexpected and sometimes shattering moments of beauty that emerge in relationships - when one is willing to absorb their difficulties rather than run from them. Watt interrogates love and its stages thoroughly on Fever Dream, yet in the end he unequivocally affirms it. His songs are resonant with the weight of experience, and his musical settings, even in their relative sparsity, are powerful and at times nearly elegant.
Review (Pitchfork) : It's easy to forget how crucial guitars were to the music of Everything But the Girl. They were not merely embellishment of production, but rather an anchor to the style that gave credence to both Tracey Thorn and her husband Ben Watt at the start of their respective careers. While she got her start in such post-punk outfits as Stern Bops and Marine Girls, it was her hushed 1982 solo debut, A Distant Shore, that helped the NME set recognize Thorn. Watt’s trajectory, meanwhile, saw him being taken under the wings of such prominent English rock icons as Kevin Coyne, who produced his first single "Cant" upon signing to Cherry Red in 1981, and Robert Wyatt, prominently featured on his 1982 debut EP Summer Into Winter, before forging his own unique fusion of British folk and bossa nova on 1983’s North Marine Drive. It was once thought that a full-on return to those organic roots was a bridge too far for Watt, who continued to travel further and further into London’s deep house and techno culture as the curator of both the influential late '90s/early '00s Sunday club Lazy Dog and the independent record label Buzzin’ Fly, which he launched in 2003 and ran until 2013. However, the Marylebone native surprised both fans and critics alike in 2014 with Hendra, a leftfield return to the intimate songcraft he explored on North Marine Drive 31 years prior as if the whole time burning up dancefloors in Miami, Berlin and Ibiza was all just something of a fever dream. And so goes the name of his third proper solo full-length, an album that continues to find Watt moving his DJ rig further into the storage unit of his creative mind in order to continue to explore his reignited love for live instrumentation. He recorded at the renowned RAK Studios in London, with the intention of melding the fineness of Pentangle to the fury of Crazy Horse. And in its way, Fever Dream picks up where Hendra left off, as songs like "Women’s Company" and "Never Goes Away" retain the delicacy of its predecessor's finest moments. But the cranked-amp grit of the record's more combustible cuts, like "Winter's Eve" and "Bricks and Wood," sets the scene. This is the very first time we are really hearing Ben Watt in full guitar rock mode. You can certainly hear the influence of solo David Gilmour, whose appearance on "The Levels" was one of the highlights of Hendra. Yet by largely keeping the electric currents of Fever Dream so well mannered, however, songs like "Gradually" and "Between Two Fires" fail to muster up much excitement. The strongest material, in fact, constitutes some of Ben Watt's finest work in years. The closest he does come to integrating his Buzzin' Fly past happens on "Running With the Front Runners", when that whistling Moog you might have heard on some of your favorite Everything But the Girl tunes turns up. Elsewhere, an appearance by MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger shines on the title cut. By the closing number, the pastoral "New Year of Grace", Watt lets his British folk roots show, with Marissa Nadler playing Jacqui McShee to his Bert Jansch. From his four decades in music to his valiant coping with the rare inflammatory disease Churg-Strauss Syndrome (chronicled in his excellent 1996 book Patient), Watt's career is a quietly inspiring survival story. At one point, it didn't look like Watt was going to live to see 50, considering that his illness has the potential to attack both the heart and lungs, let alone continue to release solo albums. So in that regard, Fever Dream is an absolute triumph. It would have been a lot more of an interesting listen, however, had he decided to really get his hands dirty in feedback and digital fuzz.
Review (Big Story) : Ben Watt's new chapter as singer-songwriter, an endeavor first launched before he and wife Tracey Thorn formed Everything But The Girl, offers a mature treatise on love and the passing of time. Everything But The Girl may be on a permanent hiatus, but "Fever Dream" is an effective remedy. As on 2014's "Hendra," Watt relies on the exquisite lead guitar of ex-Suede Bernard Butler, who finds the right degree of assertiveness or, more often, restraint the songs need. Rex Horan on double bass and drummer Martin Ditcham are sturdy, vibrant anchors. The refrain of "Winter's Eve" soars like Gerry Rafferty's "Whatever's Written in Your Heart" and "Women's Company" reveals how a father's absence increased the females' role in the life of the boy and, now, the man. Other sonic touchstones include John Martyn, Neil Young, Mark Knopfler, Gino Vannelli and The Blue Nile — jazzy, bluesy, slightly overdriven, passionate and poetic. "Between Two Fires" has a looping piano line, a trotting rhythm and one of the album's keenest observations — "Everyone has limits from the start/Finding what they are is the tricky part." A nostalgic detour finds that "Brick And Wood" are all that's left of the childhood home, "Imagine if we could/Shake off this stuff for good." The present and the future would still remain, but would they make sense? Watt has worn many hats — producer, author, DJ, record company founder — but these songs fit him like a glove.