Belle and Sebastian
The Life Pursuit
ave you ever paused to consider Belle and Sebastian as the Jam Master Jay to Franz's Fiddy? You know, the elder statesmen of the genre, laying down all those important foundations that let the latter even have a cat's grace of making the charts, and then went as far as to put them on physically. The latter exploded into platinum success, but you just can't help but feel that they've somehow betrayed the former's vision. And that they don't deserve to sell that many records (also, Run DMC first showed us that a DJ could be a band; Belle & Sebastian first showed us that a highly mobilised and perceptive fanbase could be a band).
Thankfully, Stuart Murdoch has steered himself clear of six-figure cocaine deals gone wrong, and instead stuck to fixing that cute little bemused smile of his on the changing indie landscapes around him. For a band who were borne out of a sense of frustration with how bland and moribund Britpop is, it makes perfect sense for them to drop their sixth album at a time when we've gone back to that summer of 1995 squared—at the moment, we seem to be roughly fifteen minutes away from rededicating the Diana Memorial Fountain to The Editors. And, anyway, B&S don't play those games: they're more likely (and more likely to approve of) being played on Radio 2 than Radio 1, and they'd recoil in horror from the sight of some GHD straightening irons. Ever since the days of Tigermilk they've been the band for those who were too... weird to be proper outsiders. Compared to their current white boy guitar peers, however, they seem as incongruous as a complete Lego play set at your local mosque.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress was one of the most vital gear-shifts of the past decade: they finally stopped making (admittedly great) music for that cute little café down the street, and instead set about justifying all of those Northern Soul patches found attached to so many twee-kids' satchels. Northern Soul = working class kids dancing to forget, rather than the usual indie ploy of forgetting to dance. The Life Pursuit is a journey down the same path, club bangers for those who keep notebooks filled with their favourite poems, Scott Storch with a Miffy pencil case—my niggas don't dance, they shimmy.
The high point of Dear Catastrophe Waitress was summoning Phil Lynott's ghost for cream tea on “I'm A Cuckoo,” so the muse here is the 1970s: the washed out, eyeliner-faded-from-the-three-day-strike-70s of so much modern fiction. Here, you get T. Rex, Bowie, and the original white boy soul of Hall and Oates. Career-high chart position to date “Funny Little Frog” (it was top 10 in the mid-weeks, y'know?) proves that they're a Radio 2 rather than 1 proposition these days: running entirely on Billy-Joel-but-good piano, when he tells us he's been “starting fights / At the party, at the club on a Saturday night,” this isn't some Hard-Fi boastage, it's just the resignation of a guy who feels like he's too old for this anymore. Belle and Sebastian are comfortable these days, but comfort rarely felt so constructive. They are going places, and they're taking you with them.
Places like, maybe eventually, the top 10. Hey, if Mogwai can have a top 40 single, anything can happen, right? Assuming they release it in a quiet week, and they catch the wind just right, “Sukie In The Graveyard” should be finally crack that post 6:20pm on a Sunday playlist. It deserves to as well: it's one of the five finest B&S tracks to date, a love-letter to an art-school dropout Goff, Doc Martens trampling the organ like so many fey boys' hearts, a cheeky little heavy metal riff in the middle eight, Stuart enunciating the word “arsehole” and swallowing the word “slut” like a University Challenge contestant... and it ends in exactly three minutes. You know, like pop music is meant to.
“Song for Sunshine” revels in the bizarre feel of Belle and Sebastian doing a Stevie Wonder pastiche, while “White Collar Boy” grabs the protagonist of “Step Into My Office Baby” and sends him out drinking with The Sweet. B&S have never sounded more like an evening flicking through one of your more interesting friend's record collection. “The Blues Are Still Blue” filters Squeeze through pure manic depression, pronounces “punk” “ponk,” mentions theses, and ends with love changing absolutely nothing. Sarah Martin's backing vocals have never been more swoonsome either.
It's not an album to leave your jaw open and stuck to the floor, but as Big Sam Allardyce would no doubt remind you, after you reach every new height, you have to consolidate yourself in the next season. It's not as much a progress as DCW, but it's easily its equal. The less commercial they try and sound, the more they sell. Let's hope they never reach their “Crown Royal” then.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2006-02-07