Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Wayne's Favorite Albums of 2003
Belle & Sebastian's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" (Rough Trade America)
by Wayne Robins
People lucky enough to become enraptured with the music of Belle & Sebastian can usually point to a particular song that first seizes their hearts and opens their minds to this Scottish band. In my case, it was a sad little song about a real person many in the music business have known: "Seymour Stein."
For those too young to know or care, Seymour Stein was the founder of Sire Records, the man who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and ultimately, Madonna. Stein, like his Sire label, was a kind of bridge between the old school music business labels and the developing indy and club scene. He was both a wheeler-dealer and a man with musical taste obviously superior to that of most of his peers.
In the song "Seymour Stein," a track from the 1998 Belle & Sebastian album "The Boy with the Arab Strap," however, our narrator feels forlorn and rejected. Apparently, a meeting was supposed to take place with the peripatetic Stein. Through his tears, the narrator tells of "Promises of fame, promises of fortune/LA to New York, San Francisco back to Boston..." The singer and Stein never connect: "Seymour Stein, sorry I missed you/have a nice flight home/It's a good day for flying."
Like so many of the Belle & Sebastian's tantalizing, resonant, and riveting songs, "Seymour Stein" is rich with dualities that run much deeper than missing dinner with the record man. It's about ambition versus integrity, uncertainty of travel versus the comfort of home, about questioning the sacrifices required for success versus the pride of craftsmanship, the ever-changing buzz of the New World versus the glacial solidity of old Europe. "Has he ever seen Dundee?" the singer wonders.
Yet "Seymour Stein" is also so spare and so sad that you wonder if the narrator is kidding, whether it's a send-up of all the all-too-earnest depresso-pop of bands like The Smiths, which had to have been a formative influence on Belle & Sebastian. However lovely, Belle & Sebastian songs earlier were often performed with such a delicate twinkle that they made the hushed sound of sixties folk-rock troubadour Donovan, their fellow Scotsman, seem as unglued as Motorhead.
Even if they recognized that the fragile beauty of some previous recordings made them sound a might precious for their own good, the musical energy and vitality of the new Belle & Sebastian album, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress," ("DCW") comes on shockingly pumped up. And that's a good thing. B&S singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch turns out the most consistent, alluring and satisfying collection of songs he's ever captured under one umbrella. The most mordantly witty songwriter this side (or rather, That side) of Steely Dan's Fagen and Becker thrives in the intensified spotlight. Like Michael Stipe when he stopped mumbling and started performing, Murdoch seems ready for his close-up, and his sophisticated bandmates and Trevor Horn's unlikely production never let him down.
R&B horns and soul guitar riffs. Orchestral swells with strings that swing.
Horn, maestro of the British 1980's age of excess, the studio wiz who built his Mall of Sound behind the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Buggles and Yes, is finally matched with songs as deep and broad as his sonic imagination. Horn turns in the best work of his career, giving "DCW" a collection of sounds
so potent and invigorating that the album may be Belle & Sebastian's "Revolver."
I mean, what are those reedy woodwinds parading through "Step Into My Office, Baby," a cavalry of oboes? And is this galloping tale of a lecherous boss as simple and leering as it appears to be on first listen, or does the obnoxious seduction take place only in the mind of a character otherwise too timid to be so directly vulgar?
"I'm A Cuckoo" is leavened by the horns of Horn, the smartly lovelorn postcard lyrics balanced by bouncy soul brass, an adorable and completely delightful mix of Blood, Sweat and Tears and early Culture Club. (If Boy George had material this good, he'd still be a star rather than just trying to play one on stage). "If She Wants Me" has Willie Mitchell-sounding soul guitar riffs and churchy organ, with Murdoch pulling off the most appropriate quiver deep, mounting-high falsetto since Smokey and the Miracles were knocking out hits.
"You Don't Send Me" is a trip back to a different kind of 1960's, a decade whose paramters are in this affectionate not-love song is defined by the Petula Clark songbook and the Vogues' "Five O'Clock World," history's only top forty doo-wop protest song.
There's so much to love, but there's no more quintessential new B&S song than "Piazza, New York Catcher." Apparently Murdoch has developed a most unlikely fascination with baseball. Without getting too term paperish, this energetic amplified folk-pop song (no bridge or other musical variation) is a clinic in finely nuanced lyric writing, showing a level of skill Paul Simon displayed at his early solo peak.
The singer's object keeps changing: In the first verse, he tries to woo a "Miss Private" into sailing around the world. Soon, the scene shifts to PacBell Stadium in San Francisco where: "The Giants and Mets will play/Piazza New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay." The audacious rhyme is drawn from last summer's tabloid sports gossip, a whisper that had grown so loud that New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza, in real life, felt it necessary to publically state his heterosexuality. Which is really beside the point here.
Murdoch asks the question, sounding part-curious, part-hopeful, but in no way judgmental. (I have no idea what Stuart's proclivities are, and I don't care. His well-developed "queer eye," as you might call it, may be just another layer of his artistry). Because "Piazza New York Catcher" really isn't about Mike Piazza, it's about choices. It's the tension between Miss "Private" and Mr. Public, embodied by an All-Star baseball player drawn into an unwelcome controversy. Throughout the song, and by the deftest deflection, Murdoch explores, more richly, the kind of dualities he did in "Seymour Stein": work/play, sport/business, gay/straight, East Coast/West Coast, religion/spirituality, drunk/sober...you know, the whole gestalt.
What really sends me is a particular bit of word play: Moping about San Francisco, the vocalist says, "The statue's crying and well he may." It sounds like he's singing "Willie Mays." Point of detail: There is a statue of Willie Mays near the entrance to the ballpark. Perfect.
On "If She Wants Me," the singer expresses a consuming wish: "If I could do just one near perfect thing I'd be happy." Belle & Sebastian's "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is that one near perfect thing.
This was originally posted last month on neumu, Michael Goldberg's online music and art 'zine.