Belle and Sebastian
really do feel for all those people whose favorite Belle & Sebastian album will always be If You’re Feeling Sinister. It’s not that I have anything against the record, it’s that those fans are missing out on Belle & Sebastian Mk. II. There had always been elements of Northern Soul and even disco in the band’s sound, but it wasn’t until last year’s stellar Dear Catastrophe Waitress that they blossomed fully into B&S;’ fuller, poppier and even groovier sound. Those old wispy indie albums are still fine for what they are, but Dear Catastrophe Waitress is much more exciting, much like the unjustly overlooked Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasent.
The Books EP thankfully confirms that the last few albums weren’t a fluke. Most of the buzz around it has (deservedly) centered on “Your Cover’s Blown”, a six minute “indie Bohemian Rhapsody” (thank you, NME) that starts out funky and ends up sounding rather more classically Stuart Murdochian. It’s no “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” (nor is it trying to be), but the chorus is nigh on irresistible and lapsed listeners may be surprised at how well the funkier sound suits the band. Those who’ve seen them live, seen Murdoch dance and heard Stevie Jackson’s note-perfect Jackson 5 falsetto will probably just dance.
The early, more danceable part of “Your Cover’s Blown” is the strongest, but the frantically despairing middle section and looser reprise never falter. Lyrically the song is to the world of espionage what “Step Into My Office” was to the workplace, an over the top romantic metaphor that’s slightly off-putting at first. But after hearing it a few times see if you don’t find yourself singing “Your cover’s blown / I need to see you alone” at odd times; like Queen’s finest moment it’s oddly addictive, and it has a better chorus to boot.
The rest of the EP isn’t quite as distinctive, unfortunately. “Wrapped Up In Books” is a fine album track from Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but it’s an album track; if you’re getting Books you’ve likely heard it before. In title and approach it comes off almost as a parody of Belle & Sebastian Mk. I initially, but then you start noticing odd little touches like the plaintiveness in the lines “I never want to leave you / We’ve never had a fight” and the way Jackson and the undervalued Sarah Martin fit in the track, and it blossoms into something fresher and more fully realized. Sadly, you can’t say the same for “Your Secrets”, which doesn’t dishonor the Belle & Sebastian name or anything, but is definitely b-side material. About the only interesting things it has are some nice organ and a decent bass line (the latter being one of the hallmarks of Mark Two).
The EP then ends with “Cover (Version)”, which is basically nothing more than excuse to luxuriate in the sound of B&S-gone-disco; for another four minutes (one wonders if something even more epic would have resulted if it had been mixed into the end of “Your Cover’s Blown”). It’s a welcome change—a song that basks in the neon glow and pulse without vocals for most of its length—but it’s a little slight as the end of the EP.
Of course, fixating on minor problems in music criticism implies the absence of major ones, which is true here. Anyone who swooned for Mk. II with Dear Catastrophe Waitress is going to want to rush out and hug this EP to their hearts, and those that remain stubbornly resistant might want to listen to “Your Cover’s Blown” and make sure they’re giving the new sound a chance before writing it off.
Reviewed by: Ian Mathers
Reviewed on: 2004-09-13