Sunday, October 12, 2003

Speak of an excellent new album and ye shall see an article about it in the Sunday Times:

A Band for Laura Bush to Love

The new album by Belle and Sebastian, everyone's favorite Glaswegian folk-pop septet, arrived in stores last week looking and sounding suspiciously like a Belle and Sebastian record. It has a cover photo of a glowering hipster and a quirky title, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," that telegraphs the band's debt to the 80's Brit-pop heroes, the Smiths. It features a dozen very pretty, very old-fashioned songs that depict the romantic travails and pop culture obsessions of post-adolescent bookworms. And like everything Belle and Sebastian has released, it will doubtless be regarded by the 100,000 or so people who buy it with something approaching religious veneration.

Belle and Sebastian is the Little Band That Could. It was formed on a whim in 1995, to take advantage of free studio time offered in a state-sponsored music business class, and in the years since has watched its popularity take off while flouting nearly every music business dictum. The band has refused to appear on magazine covers, and almost completely ignored the music of the last three decades. Its wintry orchestral folk may be one of the most delicate sounds ever embraced by the rock audience; few musicians have stirred such ardor without once raising their voices or leaning into a power chord. Its lyrics, meanwhile, disdain typical rock subject matter. Let other bands sing about sex, drugs and dancing; on "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," Belle and Sebastian has cornered the market on bibliophilia. "I took a book and went into the forest"; "Our aspirations are wrapped up in books"; "The only freedom that you'll ever really know/ Is written in books from long ago." Here is a band that Laura Bush could love.

By rights, Belle and Sebastian should be viewed as a kooky diversion: music to make tea by, or to pipe into the den while settling down with a volume of Samuel Pepys. Instead, the band finds itself the object of one of pop music's most rabid cults, the darlings of an international audience that fills the Internet with exhaustive album exegeses and original Belle and Sebastian-inspired short fiction. Spend a little time surfing fan Web sites and you begin to worry: should a band that has never discovered the distortion channel on its guitar amplifiers or played a rugged beat be asked to shoulder such extravagant devotion?

"Dear Catastrophe Waitress" (Rough Trade) will do little to shake the faith of Belle and Sebastian's partisans. The band's fifth full-length album is its tightest and most tuneful; Belle and Sebastian has smoothed its ragged edges without getting slick. Crucially, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" restores the lead singer and chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch to center stage after an experiment with a more democratic setup. "Breaking off is misery," he sings in one of the album's several wry looks at lost love. "I see a wilderness for you and me/ Punctuated by philosophy."

Early in 2003, word leaked out that Belle and Sebastian had gone into the recording studio with Trevor Horn, the legendary British producer with a fondness for synthesizers. For some months following, the Internet buzzed with rumors that the band was pulling a Dylan-at-Newport — junking its acoustic guitars and taking a wild stylistic left turn. Were Belle and Sebastian going electro?

Would that it were so. Instead, Mr. Horn played nice, nudging the 1960's-obsessed band a few baby steps closer to the present day — they've made it all the way to 1978 — and encouraging a bit more stylistic range. On previous albums, Belle and Sebastian's sound was circumscribed by folk-rock and lounge — a winsome mix of Nick Drake and Burt Bacharach — but on "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" the band tries other genres. The album's first single, "Step Into My Office, Baby," is a gusty piece of British invasion pop, complete with a fuzz-toned guitar and galloping Paul McCartney-style bass line; "I'm a Cuckoo" borrows its chord progression and melody from an unlikely source: Thin Lizzy's "Boys Are Back in Town." I'm not certain the world needed to hear Belle and Sebastian's gloss on Philadelphia soul, but it's here.

The band still does best when it does dainty. "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" includes several songs in Belle and Sebastian's classic mode — with Mr. Murdoch's voice drifting mildly over strings, horn fanfares and gentle acoustic-guitar strumming — and these rank with the prettiest things it has recorded. The music is rooted in folk-rock basics — minor chord progressions, three-part harmonies, chiming guitar arpeggios — but every song has its surprise: a soulful horn break, a sudden octave leap that aims for the heartstrings.

Of course, if sweet melodies alone were the source of the music's appeal, Belle and Sebastian fans would also be James Taylor fans. But with Belle and Sebastian, the words are the thing; in Mr. Murdoch's lyrics — crammed with knowing references to literature, rock bands, movies, interior design, coffeehouses and bars, fanzines and fashion plates — indie rock fans find a romantic vision of the lives of indie rock fans. More than perhaps any other music scene, indie rock thrives on the desire to be part of an exclusive club — a fellowship built on mixed tapes, samizdat publications and superior taste. Mr. Murdoch's diction may be elevated, but his lyrics are as densely coded as the most slang-thick rap, and the message they broadcast to Belle and Sebastian fans is flattering: you are in on a marvelous secret.

The band, meanwhile, continues to play to the hilt its role as lovable geek-chic mascots. The group's name is taken from an obscure French cartoon about a boy and his dog. For years, the band built its mystique by refusing to grant interviews or pose for photographs; its members appeared in album photos in disguise, wearing Victorian waistcoats and fake mustaches. Recently, Belle and Sebastian has become less camera-shy, but it still strives to project an image of cuddly eccentricity. When the group arrived in New York to play a concert in August, journalists were summoned to Shea Stadium to conduct interviews during a matinee game between the Mets and the Colorado Rockies. Mr. Murdoch, it seems, has become a huge Mets fan; the new album includes "Piazza, New York Catcher," an acoustic ballad that pays tribute to the Mets slugger. Where else would Scotland's most famous band meet the press but in the cheap seats high above the third base line?

Belle and Sebastian may be cutesy, but some ill will lurks in its songs. Mr. Murdoch is a wit, but he is not particularly funny; he tries to imitate Morrissey, the Smiths' arch-aphorist, but he lacks Morrissey's willingness to make himself the butt of the joke. Listening to "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," you get the feeling that, deep down, Mr. Murdoch believes he's the smartest guy in the room.

In song after song, he sings sneering put-downs in the sweetest possible voice; the archetypal Belle and Sebastian hero is a misunderstood bookworm, bent on avenging the slights of adolescent tormentors and ex-lovers — which may explain something about the band's appeal to an audience that revels in militant nerdiness. The new album's showpiece ballad is "Lord Anthony," the tale of an arty schoolboy who is bullied by his intellectual inferiors. "It doesn't pay," Mr. Murdoch croons, "to be smarter than teachers, smarter than most boys." Belle and Sebastian comes on softly, but it has scores to settle.

Shannon Stapleton for The NY Times

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