When first mate/bassist Stuart David jumped the good ship Belle and Sebastian around the time that the band released Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant a couple of years back, it seemed like a propitious move. Sure, David’s occasional contributions to the B&S songbook were always special, but they were also somewhat out of place. His “A Spaceboy Dream,” for example, stuck out on 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap like Devo at a curling match.

Besides, it wasn’t as if David didn’t have other things to do. Severing ties to B&S allowed him to devote more attention to Looper, the band he formed in 1997 with wife Karn David and brother-in-law Ronnie Black to pursue a shared interest in storytelling, performance art, and electronica. That band’s first long-player, 1999’s Up a Tree, was a charming spoken-word/electronica hybrid that set David’s irresistible Glaswegian brogue against a sometimes whimsical, sometimes funky backdrop of tape loops and samples. Imagine the Velvet Underground’s “The Gift” as performed by the Teletubbies and you’ve got a good idea about what Up a Tree was all about.

David & David & Co.’s sophomore album, 2000’s The Geometrid, was a sleeker, slightly chillier affair. Though stunningly beautiful in places (namely the rapture-inducing “On the Flipside”) and funkier for sure, it lacked some of that rough-hewn charm that made the group’s debut so captivating. Still, it was anything but a complete cock-up, which is the best way to describe Looper’s manky new release, The Snare, on which Looper has finally rid itself of all of the elements that once set the band apart. The quirky storytelling, the nursery-school electronica, the unmistakably Scottish charm are all gone. Instead, we get watered-down jazz-noir goop, complete with a farting baritone sax (provided by a new band member and Dana Colley sound-alike identified only as “Evil Bob”), oodles of homogenized R&B dance riddims, and some Valium-smooth vocals by Mr. David, brogue nowhere in evidence.

What we’ve got here, folks, is a concept album, music for some kind of imaginary ’30s detective movie. You can almost picture the band members carrying their burden of props—.38 snub-noses in ankle holsters, fog machines, and seedy “heavies” in trench coats and fedoras—into the recording studio.

Now, I like concept albums just fine. What I don’t like are concept albums full of mediocre, Morphine Lite fare such as “Sugarcane” (as in “her taste is sweeter than any dream”) and “Good Girls” (as in “are always good girls, if you know what I mean”). The Snare almost makes me wish I were a wee Scottish laddie myself, so that whenever anybody put it on at one of those “bohemian” uni parties, I could leap up and shout, “Never in all mae puff hae I heard such biscuit-arsed shite!” before glassing the clatty scunner sitting next to me.

Just listen to the overly long title track, which sounds like what you might get if Dashiell Hammett turned his hand to samba. Or the cliched “She’s a Knife,” in which guest vocalist Debbie Poole compares a woman to—you got it—a knife: “She’s as sharp as a girl can be…/All diamonds and danger.” Or the too-saxy “This Evil Love,” which labors mightily to live up to its noirish title: “And if you freeze on the stairs/’Cause you’ve heard someone there/You know in all you do/This evil love’s in back of you.”

On only one song, the album-closing “Fucking Around,” does Looper manage to transcend its unbearable neon-lightness of being. After all the B-movie dramatics, this carefree slice of pure Bacharachian joy comes as a blessed relief. “And we’re not serious/We’re both just fucking around,” sings Stuart David, as an organ and some vibes Indian-leg-wrestle and a fluegelhorn, um, fluegels behind him. Bless him, he even sounds Scottish again.

Listening to “Fucking Around” is as cathartic as skipping across the cineplex parking lot after leaving some loathsome sub-Chinatown flick you feared would never end. Which would be all well and good if the album’s previous nine tunes were anything other than second-rate. As is, The Snare is an insufferably long joke with a pretty good punch line—but not nearly good enough.

“Music won’t save you from anything but silence/Not from heartbreak, not from violence” sings Glen Johnson of Piano Magic at the beginning of the band’s new release, Writers Without Homes. With its revolving cast of singers and performers, the London-based group has been exploring the twilight zone between music and silence since the mid-’90s. Fugitive and insular, its staticky transmissions never fail to give you the impression that they’re being sent out via shortwave radio by a group of resistance fighters in a war of their own imagining.

A more straightforward affair than the three long-players that preceded it, Writers Without Homes manages the difficult task of bringing Piano Magic a step closer to a wider audience without dissipating the group’s mysterious allure. New voices—Johnson has always aimed for a kind of 6ths revolving-cast-of-players thing—take the band’s sound in unexpected directions, and these songs sound as if they were recorded in a proper studio, not sent in the dead of night over storm-tossed seas. The Czars’ John Grant, for example, gives the languorous guitar-and-violin-driven number “The Season Is Long” a lush, romantic feel that recalls the Divine Comedy. Similarly, Tarwater’s Ronald Lippok adds the perfect amount of monocled, Teutonic coldness to the syncopated tom-tom electronica of “Modern Jupiter.” Just listen to the way he drags out the word “days” (“dayayayzzze”) in the chorus. Or, for that matter, the chill-inducing way he says, “The doors of his house were usually electrified” before the fade-out.

“Modern Jupiter” is a great example of what I like best about Piano Magic. Johnson & Co. are artsy, that’s for sure. But just when you begin to get the idea that they’re all cerebral and shit, too, they whup you upside the brain pan with some good old industrial-strength drums, courtesy of Miguel Marin. “(Music Won’t Save You From Anything But) Silence” starts in the typical Piano Magic manner—Johnson plays a halting and simple melody on a guitar from what sounds like the opposite end of an empty, football-field-sized warehouse—before Marin kicks into some feel-it-in-your-stomach drumming that shows those shysters in Mogwai where to get off. It’s a startlingly muscular performance, especially because Johnson seems to have phoned in his vocals, with extreme reluctance, from a distant room full of sleeping pit bulls.

And if Looper seems to have abandoned the notion of putting the spoken word over recorded sound, Piano Magic carries on. “Certainty” features old Piano Magic hand Caroline Potter delivering just about the saddest piece of music about moviegoing you’ve ever heard: “When I watch old films in which animals appear I get sad because those animals are certainly dead now. And that certainty prompts my private epitaph and I have to say it out loud: ‘That dog is dead. That cat is dead. That horse is dead….’” And “Shot Through the Fog” employs a mournful piano figure atop which Potter natters on adorably in her wonderfully English accent about how her “cat sleeps on the atlas in Alsace-Lorraine, dreaming long grass and birds on the wire.” Why, you can practically feel the mist rolling in from the moors.

There are, of course, the usual (and maddening) Piano Magic eccentricities. Suzy Mangion’s stop-start handling of the wonderful lyrics of “Postal” (“I left because of allergies—the letters made me cry”) irritated me no end at first, and she repeats the song’s last line (“I kept the last day’s letters”) so many times that I think the track might be engineered to make you, y’know, go postal. And the slow, programmed-vibes-over-weird-warbling-noises sound of “Dutch Housing,” which comes complete with en francais vocals by Charlotte Marionneau, leaves me cold. Sometimes, plinky-plonky artsy bullshit is just plinky-plonky artsy bullshit. But these are minor flaws. As long as Johnson and his Piano Magic collaborators continue to send us their cryptic messages in the night, I’m happy. The war may be over, but that doesn’t mean the spies have to come in from the cold. CP

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