Scottish rockers Belle & Sebastian release fifth CD

By on February 26, 2004

After pulling a disappearing-act at the turn of the century with a handful of sub-par releases, Scotland’s Belle & Sebastian have finally broken out of their slump to return with a fifth proper full-length album, “Dear Catastrophe Waitress.”

The latest effort from these beloved indie-pop oddities puts a new twist on their unique formula, one that marks a revival of sorts. The 1996 epic release “If You’re Feeling Sinister” was a huge landmark in the indie rock scene, mixing the sounds of bands such as The Smiths and The Velvet Underground with the folk-rock feel of Nick Drake.

However, the recipe has been altered since then, partly by the inclusion of producer Trevor Horn. Still, Horn’s slick modernist production work, along with the band’s slight change in musical direction, should manage to pique any fan’s interest.

The leadoff song, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” immediately catches the listener’s ear, proving that when the group’s creativity is at its peak, they triumph in every sense of the word. Vocalist Stuart Murdoch’s voice sounds more versatile than ever, which is in part thanks to Horn’s meticulous finishing touches.

Just as well, the song’s synthesized arrangements and catchy harmonization only add to its overall strength. Yet, once again, Horn’s work comes into play in both aspects, bringing up the question that has been on my mind since I first listened to the album: are we enjoying a product of the band, or its producer?

The subsequent title track attempts to follow a similar theme, but ends up feeling like a misstep due to an absurd intertwinement of simple guitar riffs with an over-embellished string section. This slight error is easily rebounded by the succeeding tracks, which blissfully pull influence from 60’s and 70’s melodic pop, as well as some slight tinges of soft rock. Even though many of the hooks and melodies feel as though they have been re-hashed, the music boasts being enjoyable and particularly accessible.

“I’m a Cuckoo” establishes itself as the obvious standout of the album – a power-pop gem, complete with an increasingly catchy chord progression that echoes the tune of Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Although rather simple compared to the complex execution of some of the other tracks, its minimalist tendencies allow it to flourish and gain momentum as it progresses.

The more intricate “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love” finds itself on similar musical ground, although one might find it hard to tell if Murdoch’s preachy if-you-fall-in-love lyrics are satirical or serious.

With these highs comes some rather disappointing lows, though – areas where it seems like the songwriting and production persistently clash. Both “You Don’t Send Me” and “Roy Walker” feel audaciously awkward, like the band went out on a limb and hoped that the finished product would somehow maintain its integrity.

The former’s overblown horn section and kitschy lounge style takes away from what could have been a fairly memorable piece, while the latter jumps from one idea to another, failing to establish any sort of flow. Whether this is an issue of the production work or the band’s exuberance is questionable; either way, though, these moments of failed experimentation truly do detract from the album’s overall listenability.

Even though “Dear Catastrophe Waitress” alternates between impressive accomplishments and occasional faux pas, it still stands to be a notable achievement. For the most part, the change that Belle & Sebastian have gone through has provided a much-needed self-reinvention. “Catastrophe” may not be a return to their previous strengths, but it is a step in the right direction.


About Jeff Lipchus