Agony Shorthand

Friday, March 10, 2006

My wife was the one who turned me onto this group, shortly after their second record “If You’re Feeling Sinister” came out. A couple songs in and I had them (somewhat wrongly) pegged as a quiet mix of SYD BARRETT circa “Terraplane” and NICK DRAKE, with a dollop of early 80s Scottish pop; subsequent listens (and records) revealed much more of a swinging 60’s Carnaby Street vibe, with brassy horns and clever turns of phrase. What didn’t happen, at least until 2003’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” came along and nearly ruined the party, was that I never lost my unabashed fandom for the band. Even though they were ever-so-more “twee” than I’ll usually allow myself to succumb to, they were just so friggin’ great at it, and their records usually had about a 3-to-1 hit/miss ratio, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is unusually high. Saw them live the first time around the US, and they were fantastic – it felt like a big ‘ol 60s soul party with a dozen people onstage, with me & you & all your friends invited. Anyway, didn’t really like that last CD much, but I have a feeling the band was trying “the process of weeding out” to get rid of temperamental, overly critical fans like me by latching onto somewhat non-twee forms like Philly Soul and honest-to-gosh indie rock. I’m happy to report that though they’ve kept some of the chaff intact, taking the quality quotient down to a still-healthy 2-to-1, BELLE AND SEBASTIAN have still got it, and this record’s pleasures are definitely there.

These pleasures are overwhelmingly concentrated in the CD’s first half, which is always telling in its way. I mean, if I put out a record (I’m not), I’m going to rank my songs in quality from 1 to 12 or whatever and then sequence them in ascending order. That way the casual illegal downloaders, the in-store headphone listeners and the marginally curious DJs can focus on the good stuff & therefore get a deceptively inaccurate view of how great my record really is. Well it ain’t gonna work with me, B&S, because I listened your new record multiple times front-to-back, and then a few more times after that. The opener, “Act of the Apostle”, is the sort of near-perfect maudlin, winding Belle and Sebastian “template” pop song that’s been winning this band slathering converts for a decade. I think it’s the single best song they’ve written since the girl left – “Family Tree” from three records ago (what was that, like 2000?) – and exactly why I’m still a partisan of the band. Anyway, one after the other for another 6 or so and it’s just a terrific set of songs, at times adding in nods to the boogie of T. REX and his fellow travelers, and the weirdo-ballad majesty of some of their own best stuff as well, complete with the de rigeur “curse words” -- which I’m sure they’re aware are marginally jarring when uttered by a fey Scotsman. But I’ll be honest, using HAIRCUT 100 (“We Are The Sleepyheads”) and 70s American dreck like TODD RUNDGREN, STARBUCK and whoever it was that sang “Get Right Back To Where We Started From” (“Song for Sunshine” and, um, “Funny Little Frog”) as a influence, no matter how couched in irony or uncouth verbiage the lyrics are, is just plain unlistenable and a unpardonable crime to boot. Thus we’re left with a disc that’s tailor made for the iPod or the car CD player, with skip buttons only a forearm’s length away. That kinda sucks, I reckon, because it’s plainly not the case with their earlier records, but what are you gonna do? I’m just pleased to hear them writing pop songs that are still so good that when other bands try to mold themselves around this microgenre-defining sound (hello CAMERA OBSCURA, who are great), they automatically (and somewhat unfairly) get tagged as B&S clones. That’s what happens when you’re on top & you’re still good enough to set the ground rules, and I guess Belle & Sebastian still are.