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As audacious rock debuts go, loud ‘n’ snotty usually carries the day. The earliest recordings of Glaswegian pop outfit Belle and Sebastian, by contrast, were audaciously quiet ‘n’ gentle. Like much about the band, they seemed to emerge fully formed from frontman Stuart Murdoch’s imagination. Immediately prolific and cultivating an insidery sense of mystery and intertextuality, the group took less than two years to crank out two LPs and three EPs, each one adorned with carefully stage-managed cover art, short-story-style liner notes, and songs populated by a shifting group of recurring characters. A literate tunesmith with a choirboy’s high tenor, Murdoch was to many fans something like a prophecy fulfilled: a successor to Ray Davies, Lawrence, and Morrissey who wrote songs resonant of lived experience and deeply felt emotionand then claimed they were all flights of fantasy. The early records’ acoustic instrumentation, humble production, and first-take imperfections were part of the charm but also kept the focus on Murdoch’s lyrics, at once confessional, conspiratorial, and oh-so-quietly seductive.
Murdoch is talented enough as a songwriter that he could have gotten away with merely repeating himself forever. But ever since 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap, Murdoch has signaled his desire for his band to grow musically, whether by adding some electronic enhancement here or orchestral accompaniment there, ormajor fan bugbearsharing vocal and songwriting duties. As Belle and Sebastian have branched out, some things have worked (most of Arab Strap) and some things haven’t (parts of 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant), but two things are certain: The band has not only tightened up, but it’s also made promising progressions.
If Belle and Sebastian’s later releases have experimented with but not quite mastered new elements and approaches, the new Dear Catastrophe Waitress is an arrival of sortsand largely a departure from the past. An extravaganza of orchestral pop and symphonic soul, it’s both a culmination of trends that have developed over the past few releases and a breakthrough recording in terms of arrangements and studio craftsmanship. Credit in part (or blame, if you must) superproducer Trevor Horn, a surprisingly apt choice to record the band. Horn’s era-defining ’80s work producing ABC, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Spandau Ballet, and playing with the Buggles, Art of Noise, and, against all odds, a resurgent Yes, might seem like the last thing to catch Murdoch’s ears. But to an indie band that has added elements of New Wave, dance-pop, and classical to its sound while demonstrating a continued penchant for the sexually ambiguous lyric, the guy’s résumé recommends itself.
No doubt Horn has played Svengali to former clients, but by all accounts his role on the Waitress sessions was more engineer than éminence grise. And despite years of working more with computers than with people, the Age of Plastic visionary proves he hasn’t forgotten how to record real-live musicianswhich here include not just the Belle and Sebastian septet but also the 40-odd orchestra folks who add every manner of string and horn to the mix. (Cor anglais, anyone?) The finished product may be a creature of the studio, with tricksy multipart arrangements and perfectionist sound quality, but it nonetheless breathes with genuine vibrancy. Of course, to those who equate the ramshackle qualities of the Sinister-era recordings directly with their charm, all this studio magic may come off as something like blasphemy.
Whatever. To judge by album-opener and first single “Step Into My Office, Baby,” Murdoch & Co. are a bunch of joyful sinners. Pleasantly drunk on the studio’s possibilities, the song zigzags between got-my-mojo-workin’ R&B and got-my-emotin’-goin’ orch-pop, with big-beat drumming and twanging guitar cooperating surprisingly well alongside woodwind and string flourishes. It’s a crazy-quilt compositionthe chorus pops up early and often, and an a cappella choral break crosses over into musical-theater territorybut it holds together beautifully, if bizarrely. And maybe that’s what this cheeky song about workplace romance calls for. “She gave me some dictation/But my strength is in administration/And I took down all she said/I even took down her little red dress”that’s a different kind of intimacy than one usually associates with this band.
But then Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a different kind of Belle and Sebastian album. “Office” is fairly emblematic: It has a big, bold sound and an ambitious arrangement, and, most surprisingly, it rocks flamboyantly. That’s “rocks flamboyantly” as in Thin Lizzy, which is paid loving, twin-guitar tribute on “I’m a Cuckoo””I’d rather be in Tokyo/I’d rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh”and “rocks flamboyantly” as in lots and lots of orchestral accompaniment, deployed variously and expertly.
Every Belle and Sebastian LP since Arab Strap has included more strings and horns, to the point that the extra players now seem more or less a permanent addition. But thanks to Horn, Murdoch & Co. use them here to the fullest advantage yet. The zinging, drama-enhancing strings on the title track, for example, promote a character sketch to the status of mini-epic, seemingly wider in scope than its breakneck two minutes would allow. The orchestra’s turbulent playing evokes a busy restaurant’s hustle and bustle, almost drowning out Murdoch’s sympathetic lyrics: “Dear Catastrophe Waitress/I’m sorry if the kids hold you in cool disregard/I know it’s hard/Stick to what you know/You’ll blow them all to the wall.”
It’s more theatrical than anything the band has pulled off before. Here and throughout the LP, those quiet ‘n’ gentle sounds are alternated or layered with bolder and brassier ones, suggesting that the old Belle and Sebastian hasn’t so much been discarded as subsumed into something more complex and dynamic. “Lord Anthony,” penned back in the band’s earliest days, wouldn’t have sounded this gorgeous on Tigermilk. This tale of one of nature’s aristocrats toughing out the bullying commonness of his school years achieves a moving plaintiveness with the addition of an elegant string arrangement and echoey winds and brass, making the decision to hold the song back until now seem judicious.
The band’s newfound facility with larger ensembles can also be heard on “Roy Walker,” on which guitarist Stevie Jackson continues to demonstrate his ableness as Belle and Sebastian’s second option on the mike. His reedy voice here leads an ethereal choir through a surreal soundscape of vibraphone, backward tape effects, and fuzztone guitar, locating the shared psychedelic space between ’60s garage rock and free jazz. Only the song’s capital-R Romanticism relates it to the band’s more Sinister compositions:
“Like a fresh manifestation of an old phenomenon/A breeze whips through the trees/…Sends him hurtling back to the mirror/Of all of his teenager thoughts and fears.”
Many a new and neat trick is turned on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, but album-closer “Stay Loose” may be the most impressive. It begins as an organ-hammering New Wave homagethink XTC’s White Music or Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Modelslips in its first guitar solo around the time a polite pop single would end, and then shifts to a gentle but dread-filled Stuart-and-Stevie duet: “I was living through the seconds/My composure was a mess/I was miles from tenderness/It was dark outside, the day it was broken in pieces.” Then the song rides out toward the seven-minute mark on that surprisingly articulate guitar solo. Granted, even on a Belle and Sebastian record, that move isn’t exactly loud ‘n’ snotty. But it is audacious in a way that bands’ sixth albums hardly ever are. Indeed, less ambitious artists might not have pushed as hard as Murdoch & Co. did to get here. With any luck, they’ll be just as prepared to ignore their latest success as they were their earliest. CP