November 6, 2003

Belle and Sebastian: Disaster Strikes

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I’m not going to lie and say I’ve been die-hard fan of Belle & Sebastian since their emergence into the international indie scene in 1996; after all, I’d never woken up in the middle of the night with the sudden urge to listen to seven-piece, nostalgic Scottish twee-pop. Hell, I hadn’t even heard of them until a few years ago, and it certainly took more than a few listens before I was actually motivated to go out and buy If You’re Feeling Sinister, their first album released on UK pop label Jeepster Recordings. I was gradually entranced by delicate, bewitching melodies, nostalgically poetic lyrics, and a voice that drew me into an expressionistic world filled with loneliness, isolation, and the occasional sexually frustrating situation. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.

Perhaps it is the delicate beauty of their previous five albums that is to blame for the ultimate disappointment I felt when I initially heard Dear Catastrophe Waitress, their first release in almost three years. Since we last heard from them, Belle & Sebastian has completely overthrown eight years of image, emerging with a new label (Rough Trade), a new producer (Trevor Horn), and an entirely new sound. Instead of the fragile stylings of previous opening tracks such as “Stars of Track and Field” and “I Fought in a War,” Catastrophe sets the tone of the album with the perky, almost offensively upbeat “Step Into My Office, Baby,” a pop ballad that combines skin-deep lyrics with harmonies that could close an episode of The Partridge Family.

The rest of the album follows suit with an insultingly cheerful ambiance — can we honestly take a song called “Asleep on a Sunbeam” seriously? — and limp, forgettable melodies that seem to borrow from artists ranging from 10CC to the Beach Boys. “Wrapped Up in Books” is oddly suggestive of The Byrds, while the title track offers a fanfare worthy of a Burt Bacharach composition. Luckily, several tracks are reminiscent of the band’s formal style, including “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a lyrically complex nod to Murdoch’s love of baseball, and “Lord Anthony,” a wistful ballad that harkens back to the trials of high school. These, however, do not excuse the last track’s blatant rip off of XTC’s “Making Plans for Nigel,” which perhaps is embarrassing in and of itself.

So where has our neurotic, insecure, soft-voiced Belle & Sebastian gone? Critics claim that their new style is tighter, cleaner, and ultimately indicative of their evolution as a band; however, last time I checked, overhauling eight years of work only to combine a creepily jovial demeanor with twelve different musical styles wasn’t exactly an equation for success. I can only hope that Catastrophe is simply a passing phase in the growth of Belle & Sebastian, and that, in the future, they’ll be able to make the most thick-skinned of us nostalgic and wistful once more.

Archived article by Laura Mergenthal

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