Ben Watt

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Hendra Review

by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Calling Hendra Ben Watt's first solo album in 31 years is true but it's also misleading. Watt was always active during those three decades, devoting himself first to Everything But the Girl -- the duo he had with his wife Tracey Thorn -- and once that group came to a creative end around the turn of the millennium (the pair remained married), he steadily worked as a DJ, sometimes releasing dance compilation albums, while also authoring the acclaimed 1996 book Patient. Of these two endeavors, Patient may be the closest touchstone to Hendra, Watt's 2014 album, as the record is hushed and intimate, often suggesting not so much a confessional as a quiet, impassioned conversation with an old friend. There's no hint of dance music, which isn't to say Hendra is devoid of rhythm. Watt dabbles with bossa nova and often follows a pleasingly relaxed pop shuffle, the kind of pattern that enlivens a sweet melody without distracting from it. Throughout Hendra, Watt achieves this delicate balance, preserving a sense of tranquility that's never monotonous. Often, it feels as if there are no more than two musicians on a given track, a claim that is occasionally true but this speaks more to the intimacy of Watt and his handful of collaborators, usually producer Ewan Pearson and guitarist Bernard Butler, than it does to the actual arrangements. David Gilmour comes in to color "The Levels" and he manages not to overwhelm and even surprises, avoiding textures and phrases that have become signatures, functioning as a painter, not a featured artist. This speaks to the careful craft of Hendra: every element is in the right place but Watt is smart enough to leave some elements undone, giving the album a human heart that's evident no matter how deliberate the entire affair may be.

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