Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the sound of a band who have finally realised how good they are and have just pulled out all the stops without a second thought for how other people will react
The back catalogue of Belle & Sebastian part 2
Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Jeepster Recordings, 2000)
After taking their Brit Award in 1999, Fold Your Hands Child was tipped as the album to make Belle & Sebastian. The indications were good – the band couldn't move for critical acclaim and the accompanying single Legal Man (not actually on this record) went to no. 15, their first proper hit. However, a slightly lukewarm reception for a slightly lukewarm record saw them just miss out on the big hit that some expected, although this did still become their most successful album yet, reaching no. 10 in the charts. Like Arab Strap this was a record that was mostly very fine but somewhat lacking in the consistency and pace that had marked out Tigermilk and Sinister. Here it was the far too slow-burning Don't Leave The Light On Baby and the meandering and aimless Beyond The Sunrise that made listeners reach for the 'skip' button, but once again there were more than enough exceptional moments to make the album a very worthwhile record indeed.
The band seemed to aim for a more lush and rich sound on this record, employing more strings and horns than had previously been the order of the day, and on songs such as the brilliant highlight The Model a slightly classical bent was in evidence, that track in particular being marked out with swirling violins and ending with the piano lead being accompanied by soaring flutes and horns. It appeared that the aim with Fold Your Hands Child was to create a set which reflected the qualities the band saw in their own music and perhaps exaggerating them, which could be seen as a deliberate ploy to help them reach the level of sales that some saw them capable of – hence the record was almost overly melodic and chiming, perhaps slightly cloying some of the songs and reducing the overall emotional impact.
But if that was the case there were plenty of songs which went unaffected – I Fought In A War was none the worse for the trumpets and strings, still sounding slightly stripped down despite the verdant instrumentation, whilst Women's Realm and The Wrong Girl had more than sufficient summery charm to make them essential listening. Perhaps the most startling track, however, was the one song where all the layers of music were stripped away – The Chalet Lines is a haunting and brutal ballad telling the story of a girl raped at a party. Built almost entirely on a stark piano, it was the band's most sonically barren song yet, but still packed a hefty emotive punch. If any indications that Stuart Murdoch had not lost his talent for wonderfully empathetic music were required, The Chalet Lines was a song which dispels all such doubts. However, despite such fine moments, Fold Your Hands Child was little different from Arab Strap – again Belle & Sebastian seemed content to rest on their laurels slightly rather than attempt to go better than they previously had, and again they failed to quite make a great record. But even if it failed to make Belle & Sebastian a major chart concern, it certainly made sure than no-one would doubt that they were in it for the long run.
Storytelling (Jeepster Recordings, 2001)
The folly of this release was obvious from the start. The soundtrack to the indie film of the same name, Storytelling is an album consisting of tracks written specifically to the film's requirements of the aural equivalent of a woman "holding up a pack of washing powder", interspersed with brief sections of dialogue from the film, which have no meaning or point removed from their proper context. To make matters even more worrying, many of the songs were not eventually even considered for inclusion in the film, and several of the instrumental tracks are simply very slightly different versions of the opening track Fiction. No surprise then, that this is a distinctly inessential part of Belle & Sebastian's back catalogue.
Happily for those who do venture to get a copy though, all is not bad by any means. The instrumentals may add up to little more than background music but they do have a strong suit in their powerful production. Storytelling is the first of the band's records which sounds as if there was an attempt to give the songs some muscle, and the songs all sound confident even if their justification for sounding so is sometimes suspect. And the instrumental sections (most of the first half, with the exception of the slightly forgettable folk strum-along Black And White Unite) do actually suit a certain contemplative mood rather well. Fiction and its several (all far too similar) variations are all gentle, tinkling pianos and while they're hardly enormously memorable, they do serve their purpose well. It's easy to tell that this would work very well as a soundtrack; the issue is quite why they decided to give it a full release when it would clearly not stand up against their other works. There are a few moments which justify the release though. Of the instrumentals, the jazzy Fuck This Shit with its woozy harmonicas is genuinely engaging and emotional and is easily the highlight of the first half of the record. The second side is rather more lyrical, and if you fight through the pretentious and irritating dialogue sections, the one minute long power chord pop rock of Scooby Driver and the po-faced rip-off of Rhinestone Cowboy, Wandering Alone are enormously enjoyable, but they're the only truly first rate moments. Big John Shaft, with its easy guitars and simple instrumentation is a decent ending to Belle & Sebastian's only poor record.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade Records, 2003)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Belle & Sebastian and Jeepster Recordings parted ways after the flop of Storytelling. Waiting in the wings was Rough Trade and with the new deal Belle & Sebastian seemed to gain a second wind. With a new producer in the experienced Trevor Horn, Dear Catastrophe Waitress had a far more confident, poppy sound than any of its predecessors. Upbeat and brilliantly well written, this was finally the album Belle & Sebastian had been trying to make for the last seven years. It's clear from the opener (and first single – this was the first album that the band actually released singles from) Step Into My Office, Baby that we were dealing with a refreshed and revitalised Belle & Sebastian – its warbling flutes and horns over a crunching and bouncy rhythm section was the main theme of the band's most upbeat and innovative song for some time. It wasn't a one off, however, each track here being a brilliant slice of considered and beautiful pop music. I'm a Cuckoo may be the track this record becomes remembered for in the long run, a stunningly catchy and cheerful pop song that had enormous emotional resonance and a passing resemblance to Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back in Town.
This record revealed a new sound and direction for Glasgow's finest (!? – ed) and one which hit the right notes with the critics too; bringing the most acclaim of any of their records and earning a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize. The return to form was highlighted by the easy, airy music that ran throughout the music – If She Wants Me is soul in indie-pop form and a sparkling composition, and If You Find Yourself Caught in Love, another highlight, a bopping pop track with a soaring spiritual theme. In many ways Dear Catastrophe Waitress feels like the sound of Stuart Murdoch having a religious epiphany of sorts, which may come with a few moments of slightly "praise the lord" lyrical baggage but mostly comes across in the form of ebullient and inspiringly upbeat music. Certainly there is a palpable energy running through the record which was not present previously, which raises the record by a considerable distance. Relative success was the deserved result of Belle & Sebastian's musical epiphany and it has already become evident that it is this bold, upbeat and immensely joyous incarnation of Belle & Sebastian had replaced the acoustic-based indie flourishes of the past. They were clearly on fire with ideas and inspiration, a fact underlined by the closing track, Stay Loose. A brilliantly funky twist of distorted guitars and punchy organs mixed with a foot-tapping power chord chorus made for one of the bands most unique and inventive moments, as well as a brilliant song and a fitting end to one of Belle & Sebastian's best records. The best of this Belle & Sebastian renaissance was, however, yet to come.
The Life Pursuit (Rough Trade Records, 2006)
Continuing the vein of the previous album was a natural and obvious thing to do, but a rather less obvious choice was to infuse the new record with elements of soul, funk and early R&B. While The Life Pursuit is still and indie record at heart, the Motown influence was obvious from the punchy guitars of first single Funny Little Frog to the summery bops and smooth, groove-based ballads that made up the remainder of the record. Happily however, there was no element of error in this fresh shift in direction, and the record that was made for is perhaps the band's best yet, an incredible, buoyant and magnificently written set which ensured Belle & Sebastian's place on the musical map for a while to come and settled the band in their position of Britain's premier cult band with a sell-out tour and now two top 20 singles with Funny Little Frog and the brilliantly bouncy anthem The Blues Are Still Blue. Far more driven and active than previous releases, The Life Pursuit's appeal is direct and ignores subtlety in favour of taking the most immediate route into a listener's affections, never slowing down or becoming anything less than unbearably funky and cheerful. An anthemic and strident record, this is an album that displays a band who have hit a new stride and seem to be far happier and more confident in their music than at any previous stage in their career.
The soul influence came out in the form of a number of songs which make use of funky bass lines, smooth guitar and piano interplay and a gospel tinge added to certain tracks (most obviously the two parts of Act of the Apostle). It added an engaging (and, crucially, extremely fun) tinge to the timeworn Belle & Sebastian blueprint track here fizzes and bubbles with energy – Another Sunny Day is the closest thing to Belle & Sebastian past but is almost boiling with its own sheer summery-ness, whilst White Collar Boy has a rasping bass line you rather suspect the band wouldn't have considered previously along with a squalling Stevie Jackson guitar solo, and Sukie In The Graveyard mixes old-time organs with seething guitars to create a masterpiece of funkiness. Murdoch's voice, too, was changed. His vocal sound more natural, as if he had been affecting his previous method of singing or, more likely, that he was now confident enough to blast out the words without a mote of self-consciousness. A record packed with whoops and classic Motown-ish "oohs" (its the best I can do in writing, and you know what I mean), the confidence which had been clearly growing on Dear Catastrophe Waitress was explosive and all-pervasive, and this is perhaps the reason that this is such an unbelievable record – it's the sound of a band who have finally realised how good they are and have just pulled out all the stops without a second thought for how other people will react. The results are truly staggering.
The band's newfound energy didn't mean that they paid for it by losing emotional impact either – the two set piece ballads Mornington Crescent and the gorgeous Dress Up In You are ample proof of that, although the emphasis seemed less to be on empathy and more on simply trying to get any and all listeners to dance like hell. That they managed to make a record guaranteed to cause any functioning foot to tap but still has intelligent, meaningful lyrics is a testament to just how good a band Belle & Sebastian really are. And if their career path up to this point is anything to go by, there's absolutely no reason to doubt that they could get even better.
As a footnote, Belle & Sebastian's failure to release singles from any of their first five LPs was made up for by a string of EPs released from 1997 to 2002, all of which showcased a slightly different sound and often gave the band a little room for experimentation. The first of these singles to be released in 1997, Dog On Wheels was a collection of early recordings (including the demo of Tigermilk classic The State I Am In) designed as a stopgap for fans waiting for new material. While this may seem to scream of an EP low on substance, these early tracks, with their lo-fi production actually pack a fair punch, and Dog on Wheels itself is a staple of the live set to this date. Following up on this was Lazy Line Painter Jane, which featured brilliant joint vocals with Monica Queen and evolved into a crescendo and crashing organs, and was backed with Photo Jenny, a wonderful, twisting piece of pop which was as clear an indication as any that Belle & Sebastian were determined to make these EPs every bit as good as the albums; throughout their career the band's B-sides have been of an exceptionally high standard. The final EP of that year was the 3...6...9 Seconds Of Light EP, led by the vulnerable classic A Century Of Fakers and the scuzzy rock of Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie, and it's perhaps the best overall single of their career. Each of the four tracks is a truly first class song while remaining distinct from each other.
This Is Just A Modern Rock Song, one of the band's many slow-burning classics, was next in 1998, a rather more epic and lengthy track than might usually be associated with singles, but none the worse for it. Again the track was backed with an impressive collection of tracks, the most remarkable perhaps being the gorgeous Slow Graffiti, an impressive ballad of staccato guitars and gentle pianos.
After this period came a sea change in the approach to singles – while the band still released singles from outside the LPs, the singles were now released in the usual format of a three track single with one distinct lead track, something the previous releases despite their titles didn't really have. This was perhaps a part of the band's confessed desire for a hit single, an aim they achieved in 2000 with Legal Man, which hit 15 in the charts and led to a riotous (and blatantly mimed) debut on Top Of The Pops. Recorded with the Maisonettes, it's a slightly silly but wonderfully compulsive piece of pop music, albeit one backed up slightly less well on the flip side. Next was the classic Jonathan David, a truly stunning piano-based track which provided the band with a minor hit, backed up with perhaps their very best B-side, The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner, a classic-sounding indie song with perhaps the best whistling ever recorded onto master tape.
Finally, 2001's I'm Waking up To Us was probably the most professionally recorded song in the band's history at the time, and was a bitter and downbeat ballad, albeit still with the pop edge that Belle & Sebastian applied to pretty much everything they wrote. After this period the band signed to Rough Trade and released songs off the albums like most other bands, although they still had a slight penchant for mixing things up a bit (notably the Books EP, a double A-side of Dear Catastrophe Waitress' Wrapped Up In Books and otherwise unreleased track Your Cover's Blown). The EPs from the Jeepster years would eventually be released together in the indispensable compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds, a double-CD must buy for anyone with even the slightest liking for Belle & Sebastian.
Words: Matt Gregory.
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