Belle & Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
The Music Box's #11 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2006, Volume 13, #3
Written by John Metzger
Belle & Sebastian has had an improbable history, but against all odds, it still is making albums ó surprisingly great ones, at that. Begun by Stuart Murdoch as a means of fulfilling a course requirement for a class about the music business, the group somehow managed not only to coalesce into a functional unit but also to craft some rather extraordinary material along the way. Despite its initial desire to fly under the radar, the ensemble quickly found itself enveloped by a rapidly growing cult of fans, but the added pressure of trying to get lightning to strike the same spot on multiple occasions nearly caused the band to implode.
After stumbling slightly in its quest to expand its horizons on Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant, Belle & Sebastian sank under the weight of the jumbled mess that was Storytelling, its only utterly inessential outing. Seemingly down for the count and with little to lose, the collective turned to fabled producer Trevor Horn for help in escaping its own tedium. The resulting Dear Catastrophe Waitress, while not perfect, was a dramatic recasting of the ensembleís stylistic approach. Better still, the group rediscovered the joy of making records, and sounding relaxed and confident, it polished its stage presence, took to the road, and began to script a delightful second chapter to its already storied career.
Although its latest endeavor The Life Pursuit draws from an equally broad spectrum of influences, the material is presented in a far more cohesive fashion. It helps, of course, that the opening track Act of the Apostle resurfaces later in the set as Act of the Apostle II, intrinsically tying together the disparate strands of its quirky character sketches to form a loosely-knit conceptual work about sin and redemption. Nevertheless, itís producer Tony Hoffer, fresh from assisting Beck with Guero, who deserves the most credit for the manner in which he retains the essence of Belle & Sebastianís past while also propelling it into the future. Another Sunny Day, for example, echoes the muted air of the ensembleís early outings, but here itís baked in the California brightness under which it was recorded.
Not that The Life Pursuit is necessarily a product of the 21st century music business. More accurately, it continues Dear Catastrophe Waitressí ambitions of carrying Belle & Sebastianís playful brand of í60s pop into the í70s. From the Muswell Hillbillies horns that adorn Funny Little Frog to the vocal inflection employed by Murdoch throughout the endeavor, the Nick Drake-isms that fueled the groupís earlier material have mutated fully into something that is decidedly more enamored with Ray Daviesí work with The Kinks. Elsewhere, the band laces The White Collar Boy with the funky soul and fuzzy guitars of Norman Greenbaumís Spirit in the Sky; and it tosses bits of glam (drawn from T-Rex and David Bowie) into both The Blues Are Still Blue and Sukie in the Graveyard. Lyrically, Belle & Sebastian still turns its witty observations into smartly conceived poetry, but rarely has it sounded as impish as it does on The Life Pursuit.
Of Further Interest...
The Life Pursuit is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box