Belle and Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
n the past, I haven’t tried too hard to sway the unconvinced toward the charms of Belle and Sebastian. In fact, some months ago, I emailed a colleague about the band’s then-upcoming new album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, mentioning that it was helmed by uber-producer Trevor Horn, he of ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and Art of Noise fame (my friend’s a huge Horn fan). His reply: “I’ll probably check it out, but I’m not a big B& S fan at all. Fey, thy name is Belle and Sebastian.” And at the time, I couldn’t (and didn’t) really argue the point.
But some time later, in preparation for Waitress’s arrival in my mailbox, I dug through the band’s back catalog (six albums already!) and started to disagree. Sure, they might have been a lispy bunch of wussy indie kids in the days of Tigermilk or If You’re Feeling Sinister, but by 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, the B & S sound had grown by leaps and bounds. If Tigermilk and Sinister were nostalgic black and white still portraits of the band’s influences (Felt, the Smiths, Simon And Garfunkel, etc.), then The Boy With The Arab Strap added some artsy angles and clever poses. By Fold Your Hands, the picture suddenly became a sepia-toned anomaly, taking the band’s familiar laid-back ensemble sound and adding some new and interesting instrumentation and arrangements. Frankly, if you’re still thinking that this is just a band of milquetoast Scottish kids, you just haven’t been paying attention. The aural and compositional evolution is fairly clear to those who have bothered to look.
Now, with Dear Catastrophe Waitress (conveniently ignoring 2002’s soundtrack sidestep, Storytelling), the film is suddenly staggering Technicolor, a full realization of a band at the top of their game, filled with intricate guitar pop of the highest order. Caterpillar has finally become butterfly.
From the opening Gary Glitter-style drum stomp of opener (and lead single) “Step Into My Office, Baby,” one can tell that things are a bit different. The song careens through a dictionary of pop styles, from Kinks-style guitar rumble to choral acapella breakdowns in the Beach Boys vein to Bacharachian strings and winds—the history of pop according to Belle and Sebastian in four minutes and 12 seconds. Far from being a schizophrenic mess though, the tune never loses focus and has you diving for the repeat button before you even know what’s coming. It’s clearly been a while since the loud-soft dynamics of “Stars Of Track And Field.”
What follows are 11 (or 12 on the LP version) more such magical numbers, each one dipped in gold and polished to a fine glow by the band’s fine ensemble playing and producer Horn. From the Philly Soul pastiche of “If She Wants Me” to the Dylan-lite folk of “Piazza, New York Catcher” (“Are you straight or are you gay?”), from the new wave strut of “Stay Loose” to the horn-led pop put-down of “You Don’t Send Me,” everything here utterly glistens. With the veteran Horn on board, B & S have upgraded from the quaint station-wagon sound of albums past to a shiny new Mini Cooper—utterly clean and modern sounding, yet still maintaining that classic cool. Horn—who normally records his projects without the band present, only bringing them in for vocals at the end of the process—thrives under this new working relationship as well, as the album sounds infinitely warmer and more alive than anything he’s put his esteemed name to in the past, alive with strings, horns, and just a pinch of electronic texture. His skills are matched by Stuart Murdoch and Co.’s most ambitious melodies and rhythms to date, full of deceptively subtle tunes and trademark wry, clever lyrics. What might have sounded on paper to be an extremely unlikely union has turned out to be the proverbial match made in heaven, as each side enhances the strengths of the other while keeping them from falling into old traps.
So if you’d already written off Belle and Sebastian, you owe it to yourself to check in with them again in their latest evolutionary phase. Still, I’m not naïve enough to think that Dear Catastrophe Waitress will be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s by no means what you would call a “rock” album (though it rocks in parts), so if you’re looking to be blown away by sheer force and killer riffs, you’ll probably be disappointed. But you’re unlikely to hear a finer pure pop album than this all year. Miss it at your own peril.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK: OCTOBER 5-OCTOBER 11, 2003