BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: STORYTELLING (2002)
1) Fiction; 2) Freak; 3) Dialogue: Conan, Early Letterman; 4) Fuck This Shit; 5) Night Walk; 6) Dialogue: Jersey's Where It's At; 7) Black And White Unite; 8) Consuelo; 9) Dialogue: Toby; 10) Storytelling; 11) Dialogue: Class Rank; 12) I Don't Want To Play Football; 13) Consuelo Leaving; 14) Wandering Alone; 15) Dialogue: Mandingo Cliche; 16) Scooby Driver; 17) Fiction Reprise; 18) Big John Shaft.
Although this album is essentially a side project, it does have its own importance in the Belle & Sebastian story. Formally, this is a soundtrack for a movie of the same name by US indie director Todd Solondz — not at all an unexpected development, as indie cinema and indie pop are so naturally tied in together with the ubiquitous «outcast loser» mentality. However, due to various issues of personal communication as well as forced edits to the final version of the movie, most of the actual music composed for the project was never heard in the theater. So, big deal, Murdoch and Co. just went ahead and released all of it as a separate album, together with isolated fragments of movie dialog for «authenticity».
The occasional advantage of such an album is that soundtracks tend to be partially or mostly instrumental, and this makes it easier to assess the «musicality» of the artist without it getting too obscured by the frontman's personality. No matter how talented, or untalented, the members of Belle & Sebastian may be in the composing department, most of the songs were completely dominated by Murdoch's personal charisma. Here, the singing is kept to a minimum, and it helps answer the question — is the «Belle & Sebastian» brand actually viable when stripped of its sentimental tales of highland loneliness?
And the answer is an immediate «yes», on the strength of the album's opening track: the piano theme to ʽFictionʼ, simple and unassuming as it is, is instantaneously charming, memorable, and completely true to the Belle & Sebastian ethical code without a single spoken word — fragile, delicate, tasteful, and friendly. For admirers, other than the reprise at the end of the album, there is also a special «night version» of the same theme (ʽNight Walkʼ), played at higher octaves and sending out a sharper contrast with the dark bassline. It may not be a phenomenal composing feat, but, well, at least it is a more complex bit of piano phrasing than most of Paul McCartney's feats, and every bit as catchy.
The ʽFictionʼ theme may be the best there is on the record (it ain't repeated thrice for nothing), but most of the other melodies have their own charm as well. ʽFreakʼ is an attractive shadowy mix of minimalist acoustic guitar, piano, Mellotron, and «ghost vocals»; ʽFuck This Shitʼ, defying its title, is a little romantic harmonica-driven ditty (the harmonica does keep repeating a three-note sequence that intonationally mimicks the title, though); and ʽConsueloʼ cleverly synthesizes Spanish-style trumpet with «Celtic» harp.
Of the vocal numbers, ʽScooby Driverʼ finds the band in quite an unusual mood — playing a fast, almost raunchy Sixties-style pop-rocker, invading the turf of The Apples In Stereo or some other such band in full confidence (too bad it's only a minute-long snippet); but the title track is also upbeat, alternating friendly male / female vocals, pianos, flutes, and trombones in a Kinks-derived way that was only hinted at on Fold Your Hands, but never became the norm for that album; and ʽI Don't Want To Play Footballʼ is a brief solo Murdoch-and-the-piano piece that is so intentionally «wimpy» it could just as well be upgraded to the state of the National Belle-And-Sebastian Fan Club Anthem: "I'd rather play a different sort of game / The girls are just as good as boys at playing". (One can only imagine how the poor boy must have suffered in school — this is a fifty-seven second snippet of his nerdy revenge).
The only full-length, fully-fledged vocal tune on the entire album is ʽBig John Shaftʼ, and it, too, shows a departure from the usual stylistics by being built around a funk-pop electric rhythm — which the band still dresses up in Christmasy pianos and strings, so as, God forbid, not to invite any accusations of a «transition to a roughness of sound». And yet, everything shows that there is some sort of transition on here — that they took up the offer, among other things, in order to get try and get themselves out of the self-imposed stylistic rut. And on here at least, the transition works: short and snippety as the record is, it is pleasantly diverse and dynamic without having to sacrifice any part of the band's artistic credo. Thumbs up, and for those in doubt, the only negative side effects of the album's «soundtrack» status are (a) its shortness (some of the snippets could have easily been promoted to full-length songs) and (b) the tiny bits of dialog that are incomprehensible without the movie and do not really make that much of a difference. Without them, the album's even shorter — but still a worthy addition to the catalog.
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