Saturday, June 10, 2006

B&S Jump The Shark?

Rather than expect you to read another long post here, I could just post a link to the Sinister mailing list archive, where the following formed the bulk of two posts I submitted. Unfortunately, the Sinister archive is down, and looks like remaining so.

Belle & Sebastian released a new album, back in... February? A couple of days before that they played a gig in Dublin. I lived the dream, not merely going to it, but meeting with some other B&S fans beforehand for a walk in the Botanic Gardens before visiting a pubbe for some booze. The Botanic Gardens were great crack… we got to stroll around the green houses and then outside we saw the poison garden and the world’s tartiest squirrels. We were also amused by a sign in the greenhouse beside the venus flytraps, warning that triggering the traps for amusement could result in death.

Down at the concert we arrived to find that support band The Brakes were already onstage. I found myself thinking that their riffy guitary sounds were just what I needed in my several beers in state, but others thought that they were a bit on the lame side. They are meant to feature some of British Sea Power, a band that in retrospect I reckon were not up to that much.

B&S themselves played a stormer… I have mentioned previously that I had become a bit sick of seeing them live. Well, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the gap had left me much better able to appreciate their live skills and rapport with each other and their audience.

They played a fair amount of songs I did not then recognise, presumably from the new album. One particularly epic unfamiliar track was introduced to me as ‘Your Cover’s Blown’… apparently it was a b-side to ‘Wrapped Up In Books’, a single from the last album. Looks like I may have to start collecting B&S singles again. I was also amused to learn that Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant”is now considered an old Belle & Sebastian album. They did however play more than no genuinely old songs, and hearing ‘Electronic Renaissance’ live means that I can now die in peace.

I could not resist acquiring the album shortly afterward when it became available. You know that “Guardian” newspaper? This fellow called Alexis Petridis wrote a review in it where he warned of how B&S fans are scary people who respond in threatening fashion to any criticism of the band. Well might he know – he is apparently a former subscriber to the Sinister mailing list. Ironically, Mr Petridis then went on in his article to reproduce the party-line position of old-school Sinister subbers, which is that B&S stopped being any good once people other than Stuart Murdoch started writing songs or singing. I’ve realty had it with this lazy line, which neglects to point out the pleasures that derive from listening to a record and hearing several voices singing. Also, the Sinister Position conveniently forgets the many clunkers Stuart himself has written.

I showed my disapproval of Mr Petridis’ article by mailing him a human ear.

Anyway, back to the album. For this one, the band went to America and worked with some producer guy who is apparently relatively well-known, but not so well known as Trevor Horn (producer of last album, keep up!). However, the album is to some extent of a piece with “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”, being heavily produced in a way that previous B&S outings were not. It’s just maybe not as good. Actually, it’s definitely not as good – where DCW was a career highlight, this is the kind of record where you start to wonder whether you can finally give up on your favourite band.

Or so it does on a first listen. Subsequently it goes ever better on the ear, and it is very possible that by the time you read this I will have concluded that The Life Pursuit is the greatest work of art the human race will ever produce.

But what does it sound like? Like I said, it sounds produced. The songs, particularly towards the beginning of the record, have the kind of jauntiness you get from people who listen to a lot of disco and Northern Soul (without actually sounding that like disco or Northern Soul). Later tracks are mostly a bit less engaging or a bit subtler, with ‘Dress Up In You’ sounding the most like something from one of their pre-DCW albums. Some of the others seem a bit unformed, with ‘We Are The Sleepyheads’ being particularly guilty here. And having two down-tempo whingers to finish off the album was probably a major contributor to my initial impression that this record was a bit duff.

I wrote the above some time ago. Since then my opinions have changed. Basically, I now feel that The Life Pursuit is not that good a record. Some tracks are likeable, notably 'Sukie In The Graveyard', a dancefloor classic, but over all it's a bit gloopy. As most of the songs (and all of the duffers) appear to be written by Stuart Murdoch, maybe he should consider letting the others write even more of the tunes.

The packaging of the new records is nevertheless impeccable.


Anonymous said...

I think after the collaborative effort of DCW, Stuart was trying to reclaim the band in a way. I think there's only one Stevie song on the new album, and a couple of tracks where the others pitch it in, but it's an obvious Stuart record ut well produced. I'm not sure how good a thing this is. I'm still a little unsure about how I feel about the album. There's some really GRATE songs on there, but Morning Chuffin' Crescent? Urgh.

Ray said...

Mornington Crescent is poor all right, Cup of Tea is weak, and 'unformed' is a good description of Sleepyheads. But there are some great tracks on there too.
I am a prisoner to the shuffle these days, so I don't mind if an album isn't great all the way through (and I don't really expect it of B&S albums)

Andrew Farrell said...

I think the Sinister Position isn't necessarily prescriptive rather than descriptive - pointing out that the records were better back when Stuart was writing them all doesn't imply that they'll be better again if he writes them all again.

ian said...

It would be descriptive if it were true. I feel that Ray is correct when he points out how B&S albums generally have more than no duffers on them (often written (or at least sung) by Stuart).