Like any Scottish indie-popper worth his Belle and Sebastian comparisons, Ballboy frontman Gordon McIntyre has some serious self-esteem issues. So serious, in fact, that he spends the opening cut of his band’s debut LP, A Guide for the Daylight Hours, in high dudgeon over a record-store clerk who has the temerity to say he’s “not avant-garde enough.” Jesus weptdoesn’t this dunderhead know praise when he hears it? And does he have to sneer at what he obviously considers said clerk’s inferior social status while he’s at it? “Well so what/She only works in a record shop/…And I don’t give a fuck what she says or she thinks about me,” sings our thin-skinned elitist, striking a blow against underpaid retail workers everywhere.
If McIntyre had reserved his ire for record-store clerksa class that, let’s admit it, contains more than its fair share of thin-skinned elitistsI’d be willing to write it off as a case of the vapors. But the Edinburgh-based singer-guitarist also slags cinephiles, S&M devotees, and several entire genres of music, including punk rock, hiphop, triphop, and house. Throw in the kiss-off number “You Can’t Spend Your Whole Life Hanging Around With Arseholes” and you get the distinct impression that McIntyre is the most pathetic and bile-filled piece of manhood this side of the Firth of Forth.
That said, if you can tune out McIntyre whenever he crosses the line from self-loathing to loathsomeness, A Guide for the Daylight Hours is an absolutely first-rate listening experience. There’s not a bad tune on the thing, and several tracks are flat-out humdingers. Apparently the much-labored-over product of some Caledonian indie-pop R&D outfit, Ballboy’s basic sound combines the melodic sensibility of B&S with the ramshackle directness of Hefneradding some Stereolab-esque keyboards to satisfy your drone jones and plenty of Wedding Present-style guitar for extra zip. McIntyre’s vocals, meanwhile, bear more than a passing resemblance to those of Looper headman (and, duh, B&S bassist) Stuart David.
“A Europewide Search for Love,” in fact, employs David’s old B&S “Dirty Dream Number Two” strategy of laying muted, conversational vocals over music to excellent effect. Backed by Gary Morgan’s propulsive drumming and some gorgeous violin and cello by guests Caroline Evens and Pete Harvey, McIntyre forgets to whinge about how the world isn’t up to his high standards long enough to deliver a rambling monologue about Europe, trains, love, and “the financial reports from the American markets.”
McIntyre’s delivery works even better on the somber and string-haunted “Meet Me at the Shooting Range,” a not-quite-murder-ballad for people who think too much. Oh, McIntyre sounds deadly serious at first, singing, “So meet me at the shooting range/Because one of us/Is not coming back again,” but before you know it, he’s dithering: “But if I/If I was going to kill you/I wouldn’t tell you/…But I/I’m not going to kill you/But I realise that that’s what I would say/But if I/If I was going to kill you/I’d do it with style.” It’s a beautiful, confounding, and slyly funny song, and it offers hope that McIntyre will write great things in the future.
The vocalist also demonstrates a sense of humoror at least you pray that’s what it ison “All the Records on the Radio Are Shite.” “Well there’s nothing to watch on TV tonight/And all the records on the radio are shite/Except mine,” he sings to an impossibly bouncy beat, while Katie Griffiths cuts lose on the keys and some blurting brass brings joy to ska city. Its happy melody provides a wonderful contrast to the cold self-knowledge implicit in McIntyre’s words: “So I sit and think about you/As the darkness falls/I know it was all my fault/…I never really loved you enough/I never really loved you enough/I never really loved you at all.”
McIntyre may not be happy with the state of Scottish radio, but he sure does like his Garth Brooks. Or so you’re led to surmise from “I Lost You, but I Found Country Music,” which sounds like the title of a wiseass country sendup but isn’t. Instead, it’s a sad little trifle about how music can help us through tough times, sung by McIntyre in his frailest voice with only an acoustic guitar as accompaniment. It’s yet another of A Guide for the Daylight Hours’ many songs about how boy loses girl in some vague way. Lyrically, it doesn’t hold a candle to the wonderfully detailed descriptions of, say, B&S or Hefner, but musically it’s so delicately lovely that it breaks your heart nonetheless.
Still, Ballboy is at its best at its least twee, such as on “Nobody Really Knows Anything,” which opens with a ferocious line by bassist Nick Reynolds before building into a tidal wave of guitars. With its undertow of despair, the track partakes more of Joy Division’s Manchester than Edinburgh, especially when McIntyre launches into his tale of domestic dolor: “The neighbours thought they’d seen it all last night/But I’m just glad that it’s all over now/…You threw me out of your bedroom once again/For being too drunk to sleep with you again.” Even Griffith’s silly little keyboard fills can’t keep this from the most cavernous piece of indie-pop you’ve heard since Seamonsters. A near-perfect ruckus also gets kicked up on “Something’s Going to Happen Soon,” in which McIntyre somehow makes the words “And the cellos kick in” sound totally rawk.
The same could be said for “Sex Is Boring” if it weren’t for McIntyre’s alternately self-pitying and condescending lyrics. A song about how bondage is tiresomeor, as McIntyre puts it more generally, how “sex is boring with me”has great comic potential. Unfortunately, our man’s not joking. Still, there’s no denying the song’s second half, in which McIntyre cranks up the guitars, Morgan crash-lands his cymbals, and Evens’ strings come sawing in. Though why McIntyre chooses to repeat Robert Frost’s hoary line about “miles to go before I sleep” is beyond meyou’d think that he, being all avant-garde and shit, could come up with something a wee bit more esoteric.
Of course, when he does, on the distorted-vox rocker “Where Do the Nights of Sleep Go When They Do Not Come to Me,” you want to give up on the guy altogether. “And there’s a poem about a creature in the desert/Who’s squatting naked on the ground and eating something,” intones McIntyre. “And the poet-adventurer who finds him/ Asks him what it is that he’s eating/And what it tastes like/And the creature looks at him and says:/’It’s my heart, and it tastes bitter,/But I like it,/Because it tastes bitter,/And because it’s my heart.’” It’s amazing that A Guide for the Daylight Hours transcends a moment so ill-considered. But then again, all of Patti Smith’s Rimbaud-wannabe ranting couldn’t ruin Horses, and the Doors survived Jim Morrison’s Antonin Artaud fixation for years. And, really, what’s a little Stephen Crane among friends? CP