BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: FOLD YOUR HANDS CHILD, YOU WALK LIKE A PEASANT (2000)
1) I Fought In A War; 2) The Model; 3) Beyond The Sunrise; 4) Waiting For The Moon To Rise; 5) Don't Leave The Light On Baby; 6) The Wrong Girl; 7) The Chalet Lines; 8) Nice Day For A Sulk; 9) Women's Realm; 10) Family Tree; 11) There's Too Much Love.
If the title «music in a doll's house» hadn't already been occupied by Family thirty years earlier, it would have suited Belle and Sebastian's fourth studio LP much better than this overlong and rather politically incorrect moniker. Because if you thought that the band's earliest records were the very definition of the term «mellow», you'd be downright wrong, or, at least, seriously off the mark. In a strong effort to beat their own record, the band has doubled the stakes, and now you are listening to music of such tender frailty that you feel like being inside a cleanroom.
The effect is achieved not only by giving ever more and more vocal parts to the ladies of the band (Sarah Martin is now singing lead along with Isobel Campbell), but also by giving more and more space to instruments other than the guitar — harpsichords, pianos, flutes, strings, anything that works towards putting the «chamber» back in «chamber pop». Everything is laid on in very thin layers, though, usually with one dominant instrument playing some hyper-tender melody with a «nursery» or pastoral flair and the others gradually rallying behind the leader to add some wispy angelic atmosphere. In other words, everything so lovely you could almost puke, that is, if you ever decided to take a look at this «from the outside» — in reality, unless you are a heavy rocker who got here through some traumatic accident, you will most probably be caught up in the autistic trance and cuddling your inner child within minutes.
Even when Isobel Campbell sings that "I'd rather be fat than be confused / Than be me in a cage / With a bottle of rage / And a family like the mafia" (ʽFamily Treeʼ), she seems to be doing so within the confines of some alternate universe where personal conflicts are conducted in whispers and teen angst is always internalized rather than flashed at innocent bystanders. From a song like that — piano, flute, and softer-than-silk, cuddly-hushy little girl vocals — you'd rather expect an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of message than one of disappointment, disillusionment, and angry self-seclusion. When she adds that "they threw me out of school / 'Cause I swore at all the teachers", well, this has to be heard to be disbelieved.
Overall, the songs are at the same level of consistency as they used to be — maybe even with a slight increase in the overall number of hooks, because their exploration of the possibilities of various instruments seems like a big step up from the primarily acoustic guitar-based nature of what used to be. I really enjoy the harpsichord/piano/strings combination on ʽThe Modelʼ; the eerie electric piano of ʽDon't Leave The Light On, Babyʼ (a little reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's ʽWoodstockʼ and other such tunes by Murdoch's singer-songwriting idols — nothing like a tremoloed Wurlitzer to convey a feeling of bottomless depth); the minimalistic piano/cello duet on ʽThe Chalet Linesʼ; the pretty pop violin melody of ʽWomen's Realmʼ, and other little things that give each of the songs here plenty of individuality.
That said, it won't be much of an understatement to say that, even if they have found some moderately new ways to express their feelings, the feelings themselves stay absolutely the same — the song title ʽNice Day For A Sulkʼ summarizing them perfectly, as the song itself is a «nice» piece of piano art-pop that does little other than sulk, sulk, sulk. It borrows a few of its musical moves from Kinks songs such as ʽAutumn Almanacʼ, but Ray Davies could never have written anything like this — melancholia is one thing, but this whole «dazed and stupefied» attitude would have been too much for ol' Ray. Sooner or later, you'd expect that guy to snap and throw out a ʽDead End Streetʼ or a ʽBrainwashedʼ, whereas Murdoch seems to have that particular pathway amputated at birth. Ironically, the last song begins with the words "I could hang about and burn my fingers / I've been hanging out there waiting for something to start" — hey, so have we, and from an overall point of view, we have spent fourty minutes waiting in vain. (Not that we haven't been warned or anything.)
The most energetic song here is ʽI Fought In A Warʼ: a little faster than the rest, slightly anthemic and even «pretentious» (inasmuch as Murdoch did not actually fight in no wars, so don't pass this around to actual veterans unless they have a good ear for creative metaphor), but, unfortunately, it does not move me all that much — maybe because, being arranged as a rhythm-heavy, dynamically built-up «folk-rock» song, it is still too cuddly, and lacks a crucial something, whatever that crucial something might be. Maybe a different vocal approach, a stronger singer? An electric guitar solo? The possibility to go an octave higher in the climax? I know what a «musical dream» is, and I have some understanding of anthems, but the song never seems to make up its mind whether it wants to be a dream or an anthem, and a «dreamy anthem», want it or not, is an oxymoron. Or, rather, as the song shows, you can try to make one, but it has every chance to fall on deaf ears (mine) that would rather go for something more straightforward.
That was just a single example of many tiny problems that constantly seem to accompany Murdoch's music, along with equally tiny victories. They shouldn't prevent me from issuing another thumbs up in a never-ending series, though, because as long as the formula is being faithfully preserved, it has about as many chances of failure as an AC/DC album.
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