Belle & Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2003, Volume 10, #11
Written by John Metzger
Ever since the release of The Boy with the Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian has been tinkering with what had become its signature sound. Unfortunately, in the process, it also has strayed from its biggest strength: the bittersweet ability to merge comfortably dreamy and often uplifting melodies with melancholically poetic narratives graced with a biting wit. Thereís little doubt that the band had taken its Nick Drake-isms and í60s folk-pop influences as far as it possibly could and was desperately in need of some new direction in which to find fulfillment. Perhaps in realizing this, the band began its search for a fresh perspective on the intriguing Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant on which the darkness of the lyrics penetrated the surrounding music. The subsequent film score Storytelling further expanded its sonic journey, allowing the ensemble a chance to experiment without necessarily having to live up to everyoneís expectations. After all, few soundtracks ever do.
With Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the groupís first proper album in three years, Belle & Sebastian paints its music with an entirely different spectrum of colors, and even if it doesnít always succeed perfectly, itís still a remarkably engrossing collection, one that certainly lays the groundwork for great things yet to come. Undoubtedly, adding producer Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Pet Shop Boys, Yes, Paul McCartney) to the team that helped sculpt the release was a good thing. With his assistance, frontman Stuart Murdoch has reclaimed his band and returned its songs to what is decidedly more pop-oriented terrain. Granted, the album is a flawed effort, one on which the tracks donít always sit comfortably next to one another. With sometimes odd interjections of strings and horns, there are moments when the song cycle feels as schizophrenic and scattered as a movie soundtrack.
Yet, there always has been something absolutely irresistible about Belle & Sebastianís music. The group just has a knack for immediately immersing the listener within its pop-soaked world, and thatís something that hasnít happened quite so readily since The Boy with the Arab Strap. Even if Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant remains a marginally better album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is far more accessible. In fact, it may be the easiest of all the groupís albums for the casual fan to embrace. The reason is simple: the melodies are delightfully perky, full of the kind of stuff that pervaded AM radio in the í60s and í70s, and for the most part the album forgoes much of the dreaminess that turned off as many people as it turned on. If You Want Me falls somewhere between Philly soul and the Grateful Deadís Bertha; Wrapped Up in Books adds a Byrds-ian twang; Roy Walker is a playful and theatrical take on Wings; and You Donít Send Me sounds like Beckís own explorations of the era. There are also shades of The Moody Blues and The Kinks, found respectively in the precious delicacy of Lord Anthony and the folk-pop of Piazza, New York Catcher, and get this ó Stay Loose falls somewhere between the New Wave styles of Elvis Costello, David Byrne, and XTC.
Indeed, if there is one thing that Dear Catastrophe Waitress has in common with Belle & Sebastianís previous efforts, itís that the album is a quirky affair that hides some heavier material beneath a cloak of pop-rock transcendence. For example, Step into My Office, Baby is a tale of sexual harassment; the title track comments on domestic abuse; Lord Anthony tackles the schoolyard beatings of a boy who likes to wear dresses; and If You Find Yourself Caught in Love takes a surprising detour to become an anti-war tune. Yet, it would be an easy matter to miss entirely the meaning of these if one were to focus merely on the shimmering, swirling, and downright ebullient music that surrounds Murdochís words. In that sense, the group is still living up to its original promise, and if it takes Belle & Sebastian a little while to feel comfortable within its new clothes, well, thatís what happens when a band has the courage to take a risk and alter its sound.
Of Further Interest...
Dear Catastrophe Waitress is available
from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box