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One night in early 1996, in an all-night cafe in Glasgow, Scotland, Stuart Murdoch formed Belle and Sebastian. Funded by the government, they recorded Tigermilk in three days, which they only released on vinyl. The band was signed to Jeepster records, “Tigermilk” was released on CD, and Belle and Sebastian became a favorite among angst-ridden teenagers the globe over.
“Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” their fifth record, finds Murdoch and friends much happier than they were way back in the mid-90s. This is most prominently manifested in the album’s lush instrumentation, courtesy of art-pop legend Trevor Horn’s plush production. Purists would argue that the disappearance of lyrics about sexual frustration and melancholy signifies a fall from grace. And the customer reviews on Amazon.com are a fine example of this — which is just ridiculous.
Murdoch’s writing is as good as ever: in “Piazza, New York Catcher” he asks about the ballplayer’s latent homosexuality and convinces a girl to elope and sail around the world with him. But beneath that trademark wittiness is a musicianship that’s all but extinct in modern rock and roll. His guitar playing is subtle but gorgeous, and the band is as tight as ever. Best of all, a giant horn section and strings, straight out of ’70s soft-rock, drop in and out throughout the record, evoking the coked-out bliss of both the English Beat and Nick Drake.
The album’s opening track, “Step into My Office, Baby,” is Belle and Sebastian’s best song since “The Model.” Its Abbey Road inspired hook stays in your head for hours, which is of course a mixed blessing. Incidentally, the song is accompanied by a video, which can be seen on MTV.com (thanks, Viacom!), that looks like a Volkswagen advertisement on ecstasy.
The much more relaxed “Lord Anthony,” which relies mostly on an acoustic guitar and Murdoch’s soft vocals instead of lavish instrumentation, harkens back to the band’s classic sound eulogized by the aforementioned Amazon-dot-commers. Not all of the record’s tunes hold up so well, though. “You Don’t Send Me” and “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love” even border on mediocrity. At midpoint, the band’s trademark jangle-pop starts to wear a bit thin. Yet the last song on the record, the 7-minute-long “Stay Loose” saves the day. An organ straight out of Dylan’s “Highway 61” chills under a guitar riff ripped off from punk legends Television. It’s tunes like that and “If She Wants Me” — which is perhaps Belle and Sebastian’s happiest song ever — that make the band irreproachable.
While the new record is markedly more upbeat than their beloved first two, it is worth mentioning that not much has changed for Belle and Sebastian. Stuart Murdoch’s vocals are still high and mighty, his lyrics are cute but moving, and the band’s instrumentation is thick and lovely. They can still sell out Irving Plaza in ten minutes.