BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: DEAR CATASTROPHE WAITRESS (2003)
1) Step Into My Office, Baby; 2) Dear Catastrophe Waitress; 3) If She Wants Me; 4) Piazza, New York Catcher; 5) Asleep On A Sun Beam; 6) I'm A Cuckoo; 7) You Don't Send Me; 8) Wrapped Up; 9) Lord Anthony; 10) If You Find Yourself Caught In Love; 11) Roy Walker; 12) Stay Loose.
Finally, Murdoch must have realized that the whole «acoustic-sulk-in-the-corner» formula had been pushed as pushingly pushy as it could be pushed — one inch more and Belle And Sebastian would have crossed the border into self-parody, or, at least, «the eternal stereotype». So what's a poor indie boy to do in such an occasion? Call Trevor Horn to the rescue, and let him produce a different album for you — one that would not only revert the band to their upbeat pop roots of Tigermilk, but raise a whole new tree out of them.
Essentially, Dear Catastrophe Waitress serves as a «reboot» for the B&S franchise. From the opening martial punch, rousing flutes and trumpets of ʽStep Into My Officeʼ, you know that this time, Murdoch is not just going to repeat himself, and by the time the screechy, tortured twin electric guitars of ʽStay Looseʼ, reminiscent of a Neil Young circa 1969, finally fade away into the background, the new face of the band is fully fleshed out, and it's a cool new face. I only wish the melodies were a little stronger, because the utterly wonderful sound that they have going on here certainly deserves to be matched with a Ray Davies or Paul McCartney composing genius. Then again, Murdoch may not hit those kinds of highs, but at least he is always reliable.
The spiritual essence, of course, remains the same: really, we are still dealing with the same little boy sulking in the corner, except that he is now bored with standing, and does a little tap-dance or even a little rock'n'roll from time to time. He is also willing to share his love of «young and innocent days» with us more than any time before — for instance, ʽIf She Wants Meʼ, with its funky ringing guitars and tender-joyful falsettos, is pretty much an homage to Smokey Robinson, sounding like a long-lost Miracles outtake. But most of the other songs, no matter how much I listen to them, sound heavily influenced by all sorts of pop, folk, and blues bands of the past rather than simply ripping them off, much to Murdoch's honor.
Unbelievable, I know, but «diversity» is the word of the day: even though the band completely avoids «heavy» guitar tones and atmospheres, and does not strive to get too far from folk / pop / R&B territory (e. g. into free-form jazz or Indian music or Balkan dancing), the overall combinations of tempos, instruments, dynamic developments far surpass anything they had previously offered us. The «classic» Belle & Sebastian sound and style of the previous albums is not abandoned completely: in particular, ʽLord Anthonyʼ (about a bullied school transvestite, what else?) is a traditionally sparsely arranged morose affair. But now it is only one in a diverse gallery of all sorts of different affairs.
One of the key lyrical messages may be found on the cute jazz-pop ditty ʽYou Send Meʼ, which begins with Murdoch non-grieving over yet another broken relationship and then proceeds to state that "every sound is tame, every group the bleedin' same / It would make you mad / What happened to the sounds that left you lying on the floor / Laughing, crying, jumping, singing / Listen honey, there is nothing you can say to astound me / Listen honey, there is nothing you can do to offend me / You don't send me anymore". A fairly fitting judgement for the 2000s, and almost curiously clashing with the attempt to generate so many different sounds on this album — but maybe it does mean that Murdoch is desperately trying to restore the brilliant idealism of old, and, in bringing back all those values of the Beatles / Kinks / Motown / Big Star era, lend a helping hand in triggering some sort of creative Renaissance. Who knows? Behind that soft, unpretentious facade there is certainly a huge load of ambition.
On the other hand, it is also a case of being too smart for his own good — something that rarely, if ever, happened to the innocent young fools back in the Sixties. ʽIf You Find Yourself Caught In Loveʼ is a wonderfully arranged upbeat tune, pianos, electric guitars, orchestration and all — but it is more of a brain-teasing philosophical treatise than a heart-tugging pop tune; most of the song's duration is really spent trying to figure out whether Stuart is being serious when he goes "If you find yourself caught in love / Say a prayer to the man above" or if it is simply a send-up of cheap religious advisers (the latter is more likely, given that Belle & Sebastian had never yet been suspected of deep religious feelings, but then it's never too late, really, to be born again, and besides, this is symbolic poetry — «the man above» could be The Highlander for all we know). No chorus, no meticulously concocted melodic hook — as pretty as the sound is, it is not highly likely to «leave you lying on the floor».
On the whole, not giving the record a thumbs up would be a doggone shame — it has such a perfect flow, with all the instruments played in such loving and affecting ways, that the charm is bound to hold from first to last second. If the melodies refuse to stay with you (which may not be the case — might just be a problem of my own perception), the warm memories most likely will, a good enough cause to return to the album later and try again. And Murdoch's singer-songwriter-outcast-loner-idealist personality is on top of it all, unsullied by Trevor Horn's production one bit — which should placate most of those who suspect a «sellout», as well as irritate those who like their nostalgic pop bereft of too much personal sentiment. (For the record, female lead vocals this time around are restricted to just one Sarah Martin lead on ʽAsleep On A Sun Beamʼ — apparently, the girls were given the directive to remain silent as part of the overall plan to demolish the flimsy-cozy «doll's house» of Fold Your Hands. Not that Murdoch ever was a particularly «masculine» singer, but at least he has the ability to sing with a tougher-than-china voice).
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