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A critic may have dismissed Belle and Sebastian’s audience as “an ever-so slappable crowd of shit-eating indie-schmindie sheep,” but awkward teens with what the Brits call “spots” are and will forever be rock’s undisputed tastemakers. Since the 1996 release of If You’re Feeling Sinister, it seems as if every shy, sexually confused diary-scribbler in the known world (including that wonderfully awkward record store clerk in High Fidelity) has rallied around B&S’s tartan flag. Upon first hearing Sinister, with its mood of quiet dolor and fey lyrics about boys in terry underwear, most of them sung by chief songwriter Stuart Murdoch in a voice as soothing as Valium, my initial impulse was to gag. But B&S’s blend of cynical lyrics and catchy melodies won me over, even if I still felt compelled to rifle furtively through local record bins in my search for import EPs (since collected on the Lazy Line Painter Jane box set). “I’m buying this for my pathologically introverted nephew,” I’d tell the clerk, lowering the brim of my Death Rebel Music baseball cap. “He’s sensitive.”
Although the band’s latest LP, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, treads no new ground, it’s chock-full of the offhand brilliance B&S fans have come to take for granted. Unlike the recent “Legal Man” single, which shuns Murdochian depth in favor of a lighthearted sendup of secret-agent music and an instrumental so playfully rambunctious it’s a minor marvel of pure whimsy, Fold Your Hands returns the focus to Murdoch’s bordering-on-banal tales about doing nothing while thinking about everything. The Murdoch legend, possibly apocryphal, has it that he still does janitorial work at a Glasgow church and sings in its choir. And his lyrics capture perfectly the pleasant but slightly claustrophobic mood of a man making his way through a town that is simultaneously too small for secrets and too comfortable to leave. Unlike, say, Bruce Springsteen’s hometown, simultaneously stifling and invested with a mythic grandeur, Murdoch’s Glasgow is full of lads and lassies who seem less born to run than born to read depressing books, ride buses, and suffer various ill-defined sexual crises.
Fold Your Hands begins with “I Fought in a War,” which I’d like more if I didn’t find the idea of Murdoch crouching in a foxhole inherently ridiculous, then moves on to “The Model,” which seems to be about…
well, I’m not sure what it’s about. But it’s wonderfully sprightly and involves a girl who meets a “blind kid at a fancy dress/It was the best sex she ever had” and a narrator who’s “not too proud to say that I’m okay with/The girl next door who’s famous for showing her breasts.” Too bad the next track, Isobel Campbell’s “Beyond the Sunrise,” is dreadful faerie folk of the wretchedest ilk: definitive proof of the George Harrison Fallacy, which holds that everybody in a band should have a say in the songwriting. Fortunately, the other band members’ contributions are better. Sarah Martin’s “Waiting for the Moon to Rise” wanders into Stereolab country vocally; Stevie Jackson’s “The Wrong Girl” is simplicity itself, but all dressed up with horns and strings; it’s about as happy-making a white soul tune (with the emphasis on “white”) as you’ll ever hear. “Don’t Leave the Light On Baby” is more great white soul, with a tasty Wurlitzer running through it and in-your-face strings, the likes of which haven’t been heard since the golden age of Elton John.
But the most remarkable song on Fold Your Hands is “The Chalet Lines,” an unnervingly matter-of-fact tale of rape as told by its female victim. “He raped me in the chalet lines/I had just said no for the final time,” sings Murdoch, whose seeming sense of shocked calm is belied only by the lines “I’d put a knife right into his eyes.” The song’s ability to shock is itself shocking in a world where calling your band Rapeman hardly raises an eyebrow, and its doleful “She caught the bus” is only made more poignant by its echoes of Lennon & McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home.” After it, “Nice Day for a Sulk” seems pleasant but minor, although any song that mentions Manfred Mann is OK by me. “Women’s Realm” unfolds another Glasgow travelogue, and it includes the closest thing to an aesthetic dictum you’re likely to get from Murdoch the poetic janitor: “I will stay and clean the mess they left behind/But I dream as I set to scrub all the floors, the walls/I’m thinking of a song or two, a boy a girl a rendezvous.”
And “There’s Too Much Love” may be awash in strings, but by B&S standards, it’s practically a hard rocker. Why, Murdoch even threatens to throw punches. Which may mark a new direction for the band. Perhaps, like Sir Elton before them, who went from “Your Song” to “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” the folks in Belle and Sebastian are ready to drop their diaries and kick some ass. CP