Everything But the Girl Hammersmith Palais, London

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The Independent Culture
It was all fields around here when Everything But the Girl started out. That was when an acoustic guitar, bad hair and a cardigan was all you needed to persuade forlorn undergraduates that their grant cheques would be better spent on your winsome tales of love gone astray than a Darkness at Noon study guide. It worked for a while, hence the emergence of an entire generation who can quote every sleeve note from the Eden album, but not a solitary word of Arthur Koestler. But the times, they a-changed. People started dancing. Yes, dancing. And not even in an ironic sense. Acoustic guitars were tossed on the bonfire (all right, so it was a metaphorical bonfire, but you get the gist). Which left Everything But the Girl looking anything but fashionable. So they changed.

On stage at London's Hammersmith Palais on Monday night, you'd never have guessed that the band had been through turbulence. They make dinner party dance music now, having figured, logically enough, that the same lonely souls who used to listen to them alone in box-bedrooms while writing poetry will now have grown up and be in need of something mellow but groovy to put on in the background when the boss and his wife stop by for fondue.

They play trip-hop music for people who are frightened of Tricky. They're a disco band for the in-car CD user. And they're really rather good at it. Which isn't the same thing as being really rather good, but it's a start. They have enormous confidence on stage, despite the fact that the gig's biggest burst of energy comes when Ben Watt ventures a little shuffle behind his keyboard, and the most exciting thing Tracey Thorn does all night is watch him.

But Watt and Thorn's new songs, from last year's album Walking Wounded, pump and pulse where once they dribbled. While their appropriation of the drum and bass sound isn't faithful to the harshness of jungle, it lends the music a restlessness which the lyrics have always fallen short of articulating. "Single" has chunky beats in which Thorn's thin voice sounds buried, as though at the other end of a late-night long-distance call. The band haven't forsaken the acoustic guitar entirely, though when Watt employs one for an appalling song about "dealing with your family at Christmas", you're tempted to start your own bonfire at his feet, and I don't mean a metaphorical one.

Their new direction sometimes leads them up a blind alley, like on the opening "Big Deal", where their attempts to achieve that half-menacing, half-kitsch Portishead sound leaves them with a beeping, burping song more suited to a schools science programme. And they should, perhaps, reconsider their minimalist stage design. The two white sheets on to which a variety of patterns are projected too readily invites you to consider Everything But the Girl in the same way: two empty spaces, waiting to be lit up from without, not within.