Monday, June 27, 2011
Belle and Sebastian Write About Love - Belle and Sebastian
Belle and Sebastian
Matador OLE 944-1
My 100th post! Belle and Sebastian are my favorite group currently extant, probably my favorite group of all time after the Beatles. That love is based on their first two LPs and first 4 EPs. Every record since then has been a disappointment to me even though I liked all of them. However I understand that a group can't just keep making the same record over and over, that creative artists need to grow and explore new sounds. I admire that and must admit that this is a very good record. It is handsomely packaged with the usual monochrome photographs for cover art and a bonus 45 single as well. The album opens with one of the best songs on the record, "I Didn't See It Coming" with Sarah Martin and Stuart Murdoch trading vocals culminating in some lovely multi-part harmonies at the end. The song features quite a bit of synthesizer and some studio sound effects which is kind of unusual for the Belles. It has a strong beat like much of their latter day music and a lot of musical twists and turns making it one of the more compelling tracks on the album. Synths are also predominant on "Come On Sister" which is another bouncy tune. The pace slows down for "Calculating Bimbo." People often stereotype the Belles as twee, romantic softies, but Murdoch definitely has a mean streak as well and has written more than his share of bitter kiss-off songs. This is one of those. It has a disarmingly lovely melody for a song ripping an upwardly mobile ex who is trying to keep him on the hook. "I Want The World To Stop" is my favorite song on the album. It sounds like the early Belles fused with an 80s synthpop band. It has a driving beat and a nice bass line propelling it along and the lyrics recall Murdoch's earlier persona as a befuddled observer of the world going by. Norah Jones is the guest vocalist on "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" and is the strongest duet partner for Murdoch since Monica Queen on "Lazy Line Painter Jane." Back when Isobel Campbell was still in the group I thought it was funny that the Belles had two female singers and they both sounded exactly the same - delicate, ethereal high voices. Their limited range was suitable for the quieter songs they used to do back then, but as Murdoch has expanded the scope of his songwriting the lack of a strong second vocalist has often been evident in the group's sound. This oddly named song (the title refers to the imaginary boy friends of the woman in the song) displays the soul influence that has become noticeable in the music of the Belles since "Dear Catastrophe Waitress." Side two kicks off with another guest singer in the form of actress Carey Mulligan on "Write About Love." She doesn't have Norah Jones' chops but she sings fine, her voice recalls 1960s girl pop singers like Billie Davis or Petula Clark. The song has a 1960s flavor but doesn't sound the least bit derivative. I can't think of another contemporary group that has done such a great job of assimilating the style of 1960s pop while still sounding original and unique. The lyrics are classic Murdoch, the protagonist dissatisfied with her job and life, dreams about love. It is a terrific song. The 60s influence continues with "I'm Not Living In the Real World" which reminds me of the sound of mid-1960s The Who. It is yet another Belle and Sebastian song about the trials and tribulations of adolescence. Given that most of the Belles are now in their 40s, you'd think they'd be ready to move on already, but it is certainly a subject they have always had an affinity for. The song is sung and written by guitarist Stevie Jackson. I've never liked his singing but I have to admit his high pitched, slightly strained voice is ideal for conveying the angst and naivete of the teen-aged protagonist of the song. "The Ghost of Rockschool" has a strong religious element to it. Stuart has not been bashful about sharing his faith in his latter-day music but since my own feelings on the subject are more in tune with "If You're Feeling Sinister" I'm not very happy about that, but I give him credit for paying homage to Lawrence of the band Felt and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy (at least I think that's who "Lawrence and Phil" refer to in the lyrics). "Read The Blessed Pages" is fortunately not about the Bible, but a sweet song about some old love. I assumed it was about Isobel but Murdoch apparently denies that and when I think about it, I'm inclined to believe him given the bitter songs he wrote about her after she left. I read somewhere that Murdoch said he was thinking of his recently deceased father when he wrote it and even though it is about a girl, that makes a lot of sense to me. It is a quiet folky song, very pretty. Sarah Martin sings "I Can See Your Future" which is lushly orchestrated and makes nice use of French horns. It is one of the better songs on the record. The album ends with "Sunday's Pretty Icons" which is another synthpop song with a strong melody. The album's bonus single features "Last Trip" sung by Stevie Jackson and presumably composed by him as well. It is a pleasant but slight song, a throwaway basically which I guess is what you'd expect from a b-side. "Suicide Girl" is another story. It is also a synthpop song with a driving rhythm and surging chorus that I find very energizing. It is a better song than many of the songs on the album with some interesting lyrics - I was puzzled by them at first until I looked up "suicide girls" on the internet and found out that they are punky girls who pose naked on a website of the same name. I really enjoyed this record but I don't like it as much as its predecessor, "The Life Pursuit." I am impressed though that after all these years, the Belles still make such good records and continue to explore new sounds. If I shared his faith I would say that Stuart Murdoch is God's gift to indie rock. Recommended for people who prefer New Order to the Smiths.