Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress

I did not have high hopes for this, the fifth album from this veteran Scottish folk-pop/fop-pop/twee-pop collective (sixth, if you count the scattered Storytelling soundtrack). It’s been three years since their last real album (their weakest), and seven years since If You’re Feeling Sinister, a record so flawless and beautiful and heartbreaking that it’ll never be topped.

When I first heard that Trevor Horn was set to produce the new record, I winced. Horn has given the world “Video Killed The Radio Star”, the Art of Noise, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Seal’s catalogue, and T.a.T.u. All great pop things, sure, but a theoretically inappropriate match for Stuart Murdoch and co., no? And, on my first listen, I did wince a little at the slick production, ultrabright, omnipresent cheeriness, and AM radio friendly pap, all of it eons away from Sinister’s quiet, deliberate grandeur. I knew about all these things from reviews I’d scanned before the album even came out, and even though I knew what to expect, hearing it still surprised me.

Fortunately, it soon revealed itself as a good surprise. I know I’ve heard “better” records this year, some that could possibly withstand the passing of time more successfully than this seemingly slight collection of pop pleasantries. And I don’t care, for I find myself yearning to return to this album again and again more than to Rufus or Stew or even Jack and Meg White. Of course it's no good as Sinister, but we’ve already established that album can’t be topped. On Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian have stopped trying to recreate Sinister’s ennui (which the last few albums strained to, with diminishing results) and instead, with Horn’s understated guidance, they've plowed ahead into new territories that may seem jarring and unsuitable at first. With time, however, they blossom.

“Step Into My Office Baby” announces itself with a B&S signature instrument, the flute. It’s played over a spry hop/stomp which gives way to a sweeter, piano-plunking chorus flowering with a cute chorale, plus odd, ambitious detours into nearly a capella folksiness, slow, sassy, country blues, incidental strings, and the kitchen sink. It’s swift, funny, and rousing—nearly approaching the perfection of the group’s singles. The title track whips up the same sort of heavenly fluff, with the added orchestral tinge of “I’m Waking Up To Us”, but “If She Wants Me” is the album’s first real departure. Straight-up, nearly funky Al Green-type soul should come as no surprise to anyone who’s heard Storytelling’s “Big John Shaft”, but where that track fizzled as a forced genre pastiche, this one has uplift and genuine feeling for the classic sound it’s trying to recreate.

Which makes the next track, “Piazza, New York Catcher”, all the more shocking, as it’s just Stuart singing over an acoustic guitar. An adorable little story-song ditty, it’s the only track here even remotely like anything from Sinister, and for a few minutes, it shows Stuart is still capable of recapturing that magic. A few tracks later, the band shows they’re also up to that challenge on “Lord Anthony”, a tragic lament about a cross-dressing misfit that is this album’s “The Fox In The Snow” or “We Rule The School”. “Asleep On The Sunbeam”, on the other hand, is this album’s requisite girl/boy debut (see “Storytelling” or “Beyond The Sunrise”), and has its most affecting, stirring use of horns. “You Don’t Send Me” dabbles in Sesame Street Motown, while “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” and “Roy Walker” are both spirited bubblegum, but with a quirky, nearly acidic aftertaste. “Wrapped Up In Books” is clever and catchy enough to make such cheesy touches as cheapo organ and Wings-like horn breaks endearing rather than annoying.

But, this album’s brilliance lies in the way that these good-to-great songs lead up to two magnificent peaks; in pre-CD times, they would’ve been called side-enders. The first, “I’m A Cuckoo”, is an exuberant, sublime Thin Lizzy tribute that sure feels the most infectious song they’ve ever recorded. Guitars, synths and horns bounce all over this one, but the key is in Stuart’s jaunty melody (one of his best ever) and fervent, articulate vocals.

The other key track, “Stay Loose”, ends the album and is nearly seven minutes long. It has as many left turns as “Step Into My Office Baby”, and most B&S fans might think, “What The Fuck?!” when they first hear it, as it’s a million miles away from anything else the band has ever done. Sidestepping their usual Kinks/Beatles/Simon and Garfunkel fixations, here they aim for an odd but inspired blend of Elvis Costello (keyboards), Blur (lyrics and Stuart’s Damon Albarn-esque vocal), and Richard Thompson (literate guitar duels). But, the initial shock soon wears off, and the band’s greatest attributes shine through a setting that, while different, still works; it just never occurred to any of us that it was possible. While far from perfect, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is all about uncovering such unforeseen possibilities and bringing them to life.


Most hep publications are rounding up their brief reviews under a catchy heading like “Short Takes” or “Tracking Shots”, and since “Shooting To Kill” has already been taken by Milk magazine and Christine Vachon, here are some

Half-Assed Assessments

Intolerable Cruelty: Love ‘em or hate ‘em; at least you can say this about the Coen Brothers—they don’t make the same film over and over again. After the somber, arty, humbling The Man Who Wasn’t There (their best film next to Fargo), they’ve made a mean-spirited, explicitly wacky, intentionally ridiculous big budget, big star screwball comedy. And though it’s hit-and-miss, even by scattered Coen standards, it’s a fun, fizzy romp that’s far from a flop. Leads George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones make a fine, snarling pair; Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton leave delightful impressions in smaller roles; Cedric The Entertainer could almost spin off his vulgar tabloid cameraman into his own movie; and what’s not to like in the return of Julia Duffy, updating her gloriously decadent character from Newhart for a new decade and coast? I’ll no doubt see better (and more profound) films this year, but as for live-action cartoons, not a chance.

Mystic River: Clint Eastwood has made a successful, almost lyrical adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Boston-set murder mystery, and so much hinges on unraveling it that in this lone case I wish I hadn’t read the book beforehand. Knowing the outcome of this one definitely takes something away from it, and for all its power and grace, I can see why this didn’t get top prize at Cannes. Come Oscar time, Tim Robbins will undoubtedly get a long-deserved acting nomination. Method acting as it may be, his performance is so haunted and real that I nearly overlooked Sean Penn’s Mafioso histrionics. And where Laura Linney barely registers and her single climactic scene is all-too-brief, Marcia Gay Harden bests her award-winning Lee Krasner (from Pollock) as Robbins’ quietly scared, dangerously assuming wife. Still, for all its flaws, I’ll be happier to see this as an Oscar frontrunner than something like Master and Commander.

Bubba Ho-tep: Elvis (Bruce Campbell) never died and is living in an East Texas nursing home. With a black man (Ossie Davis) who hilariously thinks he’s JFK, he battles soul-sucking zombies derived from a revived ancient mummy. Any questions? This is unapologetically a b-movie (from the director of Beastmaster, no less), and although ridiculous, also strangely reverent and occasionally side-splitting. Campbell and Davis make this one fly, if not exactly soar, and it’s a much “better” film than most Troma trash (not to mention probably The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake).

Raising Victor Vargas: Peter Sollett’s stirring indie is hands down the best film of its kind since Our Song. Working with non-professional Dominican actors on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Sollett reinvents the typical coming-of-age tale. The title character starts off a kid, drenched in braggadocio, and ends up in a very different place; not quite a man, not even someone who has necessarily gone through a life altering experience, but someone whose perceptions of family, desire, love and friendship have been changed and redefined. It’s always a pleasure to view a film that, although plotless by Hollywood standards, is really about something, illuminating the spaces between people, with intentions, emotions, and misunderstandings messily colliding as they do in real life. And, there’s nary a false note in its depiction thereof.

28 Days Later: If you gave up on Danny Boyle after The Beach, here is his attempt to come back with a vengeance, and while it’s no Trainspotting, this eerie, apocalyptic zombie movie is worth seeing. The quieter, more drawn out moments are way more effective than what I guess you could call the battle scenes (which take over the film’s choppy final third), but for the most part, this is a good example of scaring your audience most effectively through subtle implications rather than gross physical tactics (although the film certainly does not lack the former.) Expect great things from star Cillian Murphy in the future.

Carnage: I’m definitely planning on seeing this one again; a second viewing will really help me to get a better idea of what this complex, clever, beautiful film is all about. Director Delphine Gleize’s first film is the most imaginative, promising directorial debut I’ve seen in ages, and her command of narrative weaving, production design and atmospheric touches is impressive. At times, she may be showing off, but what she’s showing off compels and excites so much that I find it all much easier to swallow than, say, Tarantino (whose Kill Bill Vol. 1 is nonetheless high on my to-see list).


Key Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes
New albums from Rufus Wainwright, Stew, and Belle and Sebastian

With all the discs I’ve burned this year and all the stuff I’ve had to listen to for Splendid, it’s amazing that I can take in anything else. Until recently, it hasn’t been a really stellar year for new music. I still love Elephant, but is it really in the same league as Scarlet’s Walk or Bachelor # 2? Fountains of Wayne’s latest starts off strong (and it’s thrilling and surreal to see “Stacy’s Mom” cracking the top 40) but peters off in its final quarter; The New Pornographers’ Electric Version is stuffed with great moments but increasingly seems a fun guilty pleasure more than a disc that will stand the test of time. Steve Wynn’s latest is undeniably one of his strongest releases, but I haven’t played it in awhile, and I find myself not missing it all that much. I’m confident that TV On The Radio is already the year’s best new artist, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll accomplish with their full-length debut, which is due next February. But, although I’ve heard some good new music from Splendid, the only really exceptional albums have come from Paul Brill, Natacha Atlas, Oranger, and maybe Northern State.

So, autumn always brings a flurry of hotly anticipated new releases, and I’ve picked up three in the last three weeks: Stew, Belle and Sebastian, and Rufus Wainwright. I’d consider each of the first two as one of my favorite artists, and with his spectacular new disc, Wainwright ascends close to that designation. Want One is a deliriously flawed record. It’s often way over the top, self-indulgent to an extreme that only an overemotive drama queen can be, and truncated in that it was originally supposed to be a double disc set simply called Want. Just like Kill Bill, it’s been cut in two, with the second disc (possibly) coming out next year.

No matter; on its own, Want One is an even greater leap forward for Wainwright than Poses was from his self-titled debut. Working with Moulin Rouge producer Marius DeVries (an ideal match), he’s more theatrical and grandiose than ever, and the larger than life backdrops here suit him well. He audaciously and stunningly cribs from Ravel’s "Bolero" for the teutonic opener, “Oh, What A World”; “14th Street” is an off-Broadway showstopper that finally fully realizes the scattered experiments on his debut; “Movies of Myself” is parts Motown, big beat and Poses’ “California”, chugging along intensely and still sounding like no one but Rufus. The key to this album’s success, I think, is alternating these opulent, phantasmagoric feats of fancy with quieter numbers like “Natasha”, the wry, slithering “Vicious World” or the chiming, sobering “11:11”.

The best moments lie in gray spaces between the intimate and the extravagant. “Dinner At Eight” acutely details Rufus’ estranged relationship with his famous father as the strings-and-piano accompaniment shifts between understated verve and dramatic eloquence. The jewel in Want One’s crown, however, is the six-minute “Go or Go Ahead”. It starts off as an acoustic lament folkish enough for his father to sing, ever-so-gradually building until it soars sky-high in the chorus, exploding in a Jim Steinman-worthy surge of vocal chorale and loud, lead electric guitar swoops. The song magically glides back to another quiet (if tense) acoustic verse, before returning to the full-barrel operatic splendor once again. It’s almost too much, but so damn effective; just try to hold back any tears when he grieves, “Look in her eyes / look in her eyes / forget about / the ones that are crying.”


Stew’s Something Deeper Than These Changes is a bit of a departure for The Negro Problem leader. It contains no songs with an off-key children’s chorus singing about re-hab, or odes to “girls who carry switchblades and are very well-read.” It’s his most personal and musically minimalist statement to date. As opposed to Guest Host’s baroque pop cornucopia and The Naked Dutch Painter’s innovative live band with studio overdub configurations, the songs here are mostly acoustic guitar-centered, with occasional sparse keyboards and unobtrusive drum machines. Although Stew still has a way with a playful phrase (cue the call-and-response “Mind The Noose and Fair Thee Well”), the bulk of Something Deeper Than These Changes is, as the title suggests, introspective and dead serious.

It all comes as a shock after Naked Dutch…, which was more playful, accessible, and diverse, not to mention one of my favorite albums of last year. After the initial jolt wore off, I have to admit it’s been growing on me, albeit slowly. Stew’s gargantuan talent is ever present; in anyone else’s hands, “The Sun I Always Wanted” could come off as cute and cloying, but here, it’s succinct and touching. “The Constellation Jeeves” continues the Marvin Gaye meets Abbey Road drawl of “Reeling”, only with more spiritual than lustful concerns. Once you realize exactly what “Statue Song” is about, it seems flat-out brilliant. Leadoff track “Love Like That” is his finest ballad to date, and, like most of the album, it uses cohort Heidi Rodewald’s sweet counterpart vocal to great effect. “Kingdom of Drink” is an odd, droll hangover; “L.A. Arteest Café” is very nearly the only track here that could’ve easily fit on Naked Dutch…; it’s probably even more autobiographical than that album’s title track, and, more importantly, it approaches a comfortable pop perfection with an ever-growing subtlety that makes The Negro Problem albums sound strained in comparison.

Maybe the title reflects a newfound complexity in Stew’s music. I still prefer Naked Dutch… and know that few records in my collection belong in its company. But I’m willing to go the distance with this follow-up. Its sustained solemnity makes me hope he’ll show his more jovial side again soon, but even this record is not entirely lacking in wordplay and senses of humor and the absurd that mark most of the man’s work. The more I listen, the more I’m beginning to see this as an essential addition to Stew’s catalog.


Belle and Sebastian’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress just came out this week, and I need more time to absorb it before I write a complete review. Let me just say that I feared the worst, that unlikely producer Trevor Horn would ruin their sound and make a wildly inappropriate, slickly buffed catastrophe of an album, continuing the downward spiral the band has presumably been on after If You're Feeling Sinister (truth: while each album has been less interesting than the last, they’ve come up with a handful of dazzling moments, especially the “I’m Waking Up To Us” single.)

This album is certain to divide fans and receive a few isolated cries of “sellout!”, but if it’s the most polished and happiest set from Stuart and co., it’s also their most focused and consistent since Sinister. It has its missteps (acidic lyrics aren’t enough to save the-title-says-it-all “If You Find Yourself Caught In Love”), but I can already detect an impressive quantity of classic moments (“Step Into My Office Baby”, “I’m A Cuckoo”, the warped but strangely gratifying “Stay Loose”) and the acoustic “Piazza, New York Catcher” briefly recaptures Sinister’s spark. But, for the most part, what makes it all work is the band is no longer content to merely recycle the past with diminishing results, as they did on the last few records (for example, the title track of Storytelling was merely textbook B. (and) S.). Here, they’re pushing their sound forward towards bold, new territories, while hanging on to a smidgen of the essence that made them stand out from the indie-pop crowd in the first place. They’ll never make another Sinister, but now they’re finally proving capable of creating something else that potentially could be nearly as arresting.


Well, I don't have to tell you how easy it is to neglect the blog. I've been meaning to write something here, but man, just haven't felt all that inspired. Here's what I've been consuming lately (apart from brownies)...

Demonlover: Olivier Assayas has made a truly fucked up, sleeky stylish, more violent than Pulp Fiction sort of film, certain to polarize viewers for eons to come. Good-to-great turns from Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny (creepy as she's ever been) and Gina Gershon, who really needs a vehicle to call her own (wait, she does! Prey For Rock and Roll, which opens in two weeks.) I'd have to see this again to make a less-than-fucked-up assessment of it, as it's nearly as narratively obtuse as any David Lynch film, if not quite as seductive.

Bollywood/Hollywood: A beautiful piece of fluff that strains way too hard to be clever. An alarming portion of it falls flat, as if all the dialogue was translated from English to Hindu and back again, through a quirky Canadian filter, no less. The musical numbers are fan-tabulous, though, and the lead male heartthrob at least looks like an Indian John Cusack.

The Singing Detective: I'm halfway through Dennis Potter's much-praised 1986 BBC miniseries, which has recently been transformed into a two-hour feature film starring Robert Downey Jr. set to open later this month. I can't imagine the film improving on the original, though. Refracting through shards of memories, Potter's tale centers on an alter-ego suffering a severe skin disease as he recalls (hallucinates?) various childhood moments and scenes from his own detective novels until they blend and recontextualize into a dizzying whole. And oh, there are musical numbers on par with Fosse's All That Jazz, although the tone is entirely different. Maybe I'll attempt a full review after I watch the remaining three episodes.

The School of Rock: Richard Linklater's bid for Hollywood glory is nearly miraculous in that it doesn't suck. Actually, Linklater's presence is most unobtrusive, as this pop spin on Dead Poet's Society (with no sanctimony and little sentimentality) is all about Jack Black. Fortunately, it's basically his character from High Fidelity given his very own film, and it's the role he was born to play. Sure, he chews scenery, but he's so goddamn likable and alive and hilarious and impassioned as a guy who lives and dies by rock and roll. Although it starts off a little slow, it gets going once the kids/music angle comes into focus. The film's simply a blast and just oozes with infectious energy, successfully bringing an indie sensibility to a mainstream format. And, the cast is nearly perfect, with Joan Cusack turning what could've been a cartoon cutout uptight principal into something much more flesh-and-blood. The best studio comedy since High Fidelity or Wonder Boys, it captures the endless possibilities of '70s Hollywood like few other films in recent memory.