After years of being a cult band on the Jeepster label, of never quite managing to recreate the magic of the legendary first album Tigermilk, Belle and Sebastian have switched over to Rough Trade and the ministrations of producer Trevor Horn (Tatu / ABC / Frankie Goes To Hollywood). Not an obvious choice for their trademark witticisms and gentle acoustic sound (though there were sublime upbeat moments too), but surprisingly, it not only comes off, but could even turn Stuart Murdoch and crew into household names at long last.
The opening track (and forthcoming single) Step Into My Office, Baby made me think I’d loaded the wrong CD. The perky intro – brass, twanging guitars, jaunty flute, infectious rhythm – just don’t sound like Belle & Sebastian. Then the Californian vocal harmonies kick in and you realise this is B & S, but not as we know them… The central section slows it right down and Murdoch’s wistful voice takes on its more normal timbre. But before long we pick up speed again and the harmonies could be early Crosby, Stills & Nash or even Beach Boys – there’s a distinct hint of Good Vibrations trying to escape at one point. However all this glitz is laid on the foundation of a typically quirky B & S song, and terrific fun it is too.
The title track is more standard fare, a classic tale of normal people leading less than perfect lives: “Dear catastrophe girlfriend / I’m sorry if he hit you with the full can of Coke / It’s no joke / Your face is bleeding / You’ll soon be leaving this town / To the clowns who worship no-one but themselves…” But even here Trevor Horn has worked some magic, piling on strings that manage to enhance rather than distract from Murdoch’s breathy delivery.
In fact the album is crammed full of “classic” B & S songs given this sympathetic treatment. If She Wants Me sounds very familiar with its slightly odd, cut-off rhythms, and its tale of a hopeful (but one suspects slightly nerdy) young man. I’m A Cuckoo and Lord Anthony use the same formula, the latter a sad and lovely song that returns to the theme of school misfits with heartbreaking effect.
Piazza, New York Catcher is one exception – there is nothing but acoustic guitars here. Wrapped Up In Books motors on nicely with a ’70s guitar riff and added organ. If You Catch Yourself In Love has a blissful piano intro before exploding with lush orchestration – organ, strings, the works – and very ’60s backing vocals, the harmonies again coming straight from the West Coast.
This is even more evident in You Don’t Send Me, one of the standout tracks. There are delightful vocal slides for an upbeat song, but the lyrics are merciless: “Listen honey there is nothing you could say to offend me any more / You don’t send me any more…” Cheeky backing vocals (“There’s nothing / There’s nothing”) add to the insolence. And the obligatory B & S trumpet tune is here too, floating over the top. Great stuff.
Roy Walker goes completely over the top – talk about a pure pop moment. The West Coast influence is reinforced with every sound effect you can think of – clicking fingers, electric drills, even a ping-pong ball – and the wild guitar breaks and harmonica just add to the fun.
Stay Loose sounds more “modern” – some gentle electronica after the organ into – but soon falls back into a classic ’70s refrain, which the lyrics seem to echo: “So what about me / I don’t really see / How things will improve / When all you want to do is to stay loose”. Groovy, baby.
As with all B & S albums, a female vocalist (in this case Sarah Martin, after last year’s departure of Isobel Campbell) gets a look in on just one track (Asleep On A Sunbeam). I hate to say this but, as always, it turns out to be the least interesting one on the album. It’s perfectly pleasant but tips over into twee. Otherwise, this album is a real treat, and Murdoch was obviously born in the wrong decade. I do hope the die-hard fans won’t howl too loudly.