Belle And Sebastian was initially conceived as a college project, bereft of any greater aspirations toward fame or stardom, but after receiving critical acclaim for their debut and thus cultivating a devoted cult following the academic experiment was transfigured into a full fledged indie pop group.
Due to its original status as an idle product of a college assignment, a mere thousand copies of Tigermilk were released, but this was sufficient to earn the group a level of attention amongst the music community as well as a demand for new material. Due to the scarcity of copies the price of their debut rapidly escalated until, later on in their careers, they were forced to give Tigermilk a full mainstream release. Even before the album's reissue, however, the thousand copies alone instantly elevated the band to the position of an overnight indie sensation, with the paucity of copies of the record, if anything, adding to their mystique.
The group was primarily the brainchild of its vocalist/songwriter Stuart Murdoch, whose distinctive musical vision composes most of their debut. While hardly a gifted singer from a purely technical standpoint, his vocals fit the material perfectly, as his soft, emotional delivery compounds the potency of each song.
Due to the obvious dearth of funds inherent to a college product Tigermilk is severely under produced, but even this potential liability becomes an asset for the album, as the minimalist sounds simply makes for a more intimate experience.
While hardly unique the band establish a highly effective formula on their debut, with absolutely gorgeous, emotionally transparent songs augmented by Murdoch's unconventionally beautiful vocals married to delicate, minimalist and often cathartic instrumentation.
The band's lyrics are intelligent without ever taking themselves too seriously, with myriad coruscations of wit liberally distributed throughout the album. Any possible overbearing level of pretentiousness or potential melodrama is always averted thanks to the band's ubiquitous sense of humor, which always dilutes any threat of coming across as too stuffy or pompous.
Murdoch's songwriting is uniformly brilliant, as the album is wholly devoid of anything that could be branded as filler. Even the oft reviled Electronic Renaissance with its conceivably grating mechanical feel is saved from being a misfire thanks to its strong melody and the fact that, even in this vastly different context, the group's signature spirit is still preserved.
In terms of this mechanical methodology, however, Electronic Renaissance is an anomaly, as the band's specialty revolves around employing fully organic, deeply human arrangements highlighted by Murdoch's impassioned delivery. These tracks are made beautiful by their penetrating emotionality, and thus the synth-fest on Electronic Renaissance provides a sharp and unexpected contrast with the rest of Tigermilk's material.
Ultimately the album is an incredible debut, as the band had a brilliant sound worked out right from the very beginning. While some eschew Tigermilk because of its lack of polish in favor of proclaiming If You're Feeling Sinister to be the band's true debut this is an egregious mistake; the latter album is indeed a classic, and one eminently worthy of praise, but neglecting Tigermilk due to its underdeveloped sound is a true folly. The group's debut is also a classic in its own right, boasting clever lyrics and exceptional melodies that are only ameliorated by the more personal minimalist feel.
If one is simply incapable of coping with a minimally produced album then they should indeed avoid Tigermilk, but for anyone willing to look beyond this cheap production they'll find the record to be a pop masterpiece, a gorgeous, catchy and emotional experience that hopefully secured the band an A+ on their assignment.
What's immediately apparent upon listening to If You're Feeling Sinister is that the record contains the studio polish that was so noticeably absent from its under produced predecessor. This isn't to say that the album is overproduced, as the LP features an ideal balance between the delicate minimalism of Tigermilk and the greater clarity of a more professional product, so while their debut wasn't marred by its low budget treatment neither is If You're Feeling Sinister in any way harmed by its greater studio influence.
The next thing that's evident is that in the short space of time between Tigermilk and If You're Feeling Sinister Murdoch has grown considerably as a songwriter. Belle And Sebastian's debut was undeniably a strong outing from a songwriting perspective but their follow up surpasses it with regards to entertainment and memorability.
The Stars Of Track And Field opens the album with its unparalleled beauty and a creative, unforgettable vocal melody, Seeing Other People is musically brilliant, Me And The Major is hyper catchy, Like Dylan In The Movies is haunting with its understated menace, The Fox In The Snow is elegant catharsis and If You're Feeling Sinister has one of the record's most memorable hooks in the way the title's sung.
Unfortunately, the selection of these particular tracks as highlights illustrates one of the album's greatest defects, namely that the record's best material is predominantly concentrated in the first half (save the aforementioned title track), after which there's a small but tangible drop in the quality of the songwriting. None of the tracks are bad or even average, so better sequencing could have alleviated this dilemma, but as it stands there's noticeable deterioration after the fifth track that somewhat detracts from what's otherwise a brilliant album.
The lyrics are as clever and quirky as ever, with memorable offbeat and surreal touches like, 'the stars of track and field are beautiful people,' and, 'she was into S&M and bible studies.' Lines like these are quintessential Belle And Sebastian, always enhancing already brilliant songs.
Ultimately the structural flaw can easily be dispelled by the fact that every track on the album is quite strong, as the contrast between both halves is simply a case of excellent songs on one side and merely good ones on the other. The album remains gripping all the way through in spite of this imbalance, and the aforementioned liability is thus a rather superficial and ultimately irrelevant complaint.
Thus If You're Feeling Sinister is an excellent album, filled with Murdoch's exceptional songwriting and the band's impressive arrangements. While it's the better of the two records, however, If You're Feeling Sinister shouldn't eclipse the quality of its predecessor, but it's understandable that it often does; its successor takes every merit from Tigermilk and transplants them into a better produced and thus more accessible environment, with no problems with the mix or thin arrangements. This would certainly seem like a more attractive alternative to a casual fan who's unacquainted with the band's products, but a more discerning listener would find much to laud in Tigermilk itself, casting it as an aural experience that greatly differs from If You're Feeling Sinister but is likewise excellent in its own right.
Nevertheless it's If You're Feeling Sinister that assumes it place as the band's masterpiece, the zenith of the group's considerable talents. The songs on the first side rank amongst the best the group's ever produced, while wisely enough Murdoch exclusively pens every number, as on subsequent outings the more democratic configuration of the creative side of the band would mar the proceedings as less talented members would endeavor to compose tracks themselves with often less than stellar results.
Thus with Stuart Murdoch firmly in control and at the peak of his abilities as a songwriter the album naturally attains its place as the band's best effort, featuring every strength of the group in full force and few of the flaws that would later emerge.
On The Boy With The Arab Strap Stuart Murdoch relinquishes his absolute creative control of the group on several occasions, allowing his bandmates to pen a few of their own compositions. While this is hardly an egregious mistake of the proportions of John Fogerty acquiescing and permitting his associates to compose the bulk of the material on Mardi Gras, as Murdoch's collaborators were hardly bereft of songwriting talent (as is made evident by tracks of the caliber of Stevie Jackson's Seymour Stein), it remains an ultimately deleterious decision, diluting the quality of the album with lesser tracks by band members who, while somewhat gifted in the art of composing, still pale in comparison to their frontman's brilliance.
Ergo this handicap prevents the album from matching the sonic perfection of If You're Feeling Sinister, as the record's erratic nature can't hope to equal the consistency of its predecessor.
Stevie Jackson's two compositions (particularly the aforementioned Seymour Stein) are decent enough, though Isobel Campbell's Is It Wicked Not To Care? is borderline mediocre, exacerbated by her poor vocals. Elsewhere Stuart David's spoken track, A Space Boy Dream, is wholly extraneous, betraying neither musical nor lyrical ingenuity thus casting the song as the very definition of filler.
Fortunately, however, Murdoch remains in top form from a songwriting standpoint; the tracks are predominantly slightly inferior to the peak content on If You're Feeling Sinister, but nevertheless they remain quite strong, proving why Murdoch is considered to be one of the top figures in indie pop.
The opener It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career is gorgeous and moving, Sleep The Clock Around is Belle & Sebastian at their most catchy and infectious and the title track is irresistible with an exceptional melody. Between the combo of the captivating Simple Things and the anthemic The Rollercoaster Ride the album ends on a high note, while tracks like Ease Your Feet In The Sea, A Summer Wasting and Dirty Dream Number Two are no slouches either from a qualitative perspective.
It's primarily during the non-Murdoch penned numbers that the album encounters problems, as tracks like Jackson's Chickfactor are by no means bad but still comparatively weak when compared to Murdoch's handiwork. As talented as the likes of Jackson, David and Campbell are Belle And Sebastian had always been Murdoch's brainchild, and these band member spotlights detract from his overarching musical vision.
Thus The Boy With The Arab Strap is indeed an excellent album, albeit not one devoid of faults. The involvement of other band members in the creative process set a dangerous precedent, and one that would greatly impact the group in the future, but for now the songwriting guest spots are confined to only about a third of the album, and most of them are still entertaining in their own right.
The album is another pop masterpiece for the group, filled with all of the band's trademarks, from beautiful melodies to hypnotic vocals to clever and often amusing lyrics. While I wouldn't consider it to be the band's magnum opus as many proclaim, as I would award that honor to If You're Feeling Sinister, the album remains extremely strong, and certainly belong in the upper echelons of the realm of indie pop.
It's puzzling that after assuming tyrannical control over the creative end of what was ostensibly his group Stuart Murdoch was content to often recede into the background and allow his less gifted collaborators to compose and perform their own songs. This democratization had been a mild liability on The Boy With The Arab Strap, but on their subsequent outing the problems escalated to the point that it greatly mars what could have been an excellent album.
Many of the non-Murdoch penned tracks are not only unspectacular on their own terms but truly fail to capture the feel of the band, sounding incongruous and incompatible with the rest of the material on the album. Oftentimes these songs are simply generic, woefully lacking the offbeat, subtle intelligence generally endemic to the group.
Stevie Jackson's Beyond The Sunrise is a particularly egregious lapse of taste, a candidate for the worst song ever performed by the group with its blandness and desultory structure, while he's perpetually overshadowed by Murdoch on their collaborative effort The Wrong Girl which, likely thanks to Jackson, is one of the weaker songs on the album. Waiting For The Moon To Rise is an ultimately derivative and nondescript endeavor courtesy of Sarah Martin, while in that regard Family Tree isn't much better.
Fortunately Murdoch is able to salvage the album with some prime cuts, though, much like his bandmates, he's hardly infallible on the record. The Chalet Lines may be shocking lyrically with its tale of rape but as a song it's rather pedestrian, while the closer There's Too Much Love is weak and forgettable.
Such is not the case, however, with the glorious opener I Fought In A War, a brilliant and moving epic with an incredible vocal melody and a tangible sense of pathos, while its follow up The Model is rather catchy and well crafted. Don't Leave The Light On Baby is another winner with a great melody and an edgier feel to it, and while tracks like Nice Day For A Sulk and Women's Realm are decidedly lesser efforts they're at least somewhat entertaining.
Murdoch's generosity toward his bandmates effectively sabotages an otherwise worthy album, rendering it an erratic and disjointed experience. Jackson, Martin and the like are decent songwriters, but neither stylistically nor qualitatively compatible with the identity of the group.
The album remains a solid outing thanks to Murdoch's handful of legitimate classics, but it's easily the worst product from the group to this point, and a severe disappointment after the band's initial stellar trio. There's little that's outright offensive on the album (save the tedious ordeal that is Beyond The Sunrise), but this doesn't change the bipolar character of the album, wherein nearly every track is a misfire or a classic with very little middle ground. This invariably cultivates a love/hate relationship with the album, a record that's impossible to condemn due to its magnificent high points but likewise impossible to praise too much due to its profusion of filler.
Ergo a pretty good grade is the best available compromise for assessing the album. Murdoch invited these hindrances upon the group when he allowed his bandmates to seize prominent roles on the creative side of the album, resulting a in a certain duality for the band, with the group sounding much like their old selves when Murdoch pens a track while they sound like a different indie pop outfit altogether when the other members peddle their pedestrian fare. It seems that Stuart Murdoch alone understood what made Belle And Sebastian a great, unique band, and was thus the only one equipped to compose authentic material for them.
Of all the groups to complement Todd Solondz's brand of incisive, nihilistic black comedy Belle & Sebastian were a natural choice, an offbeat indie pop group to match an offbeat indie filmmaker. As a result Storytelling is a worthy musical counterpart for Solondz's brilliant film of the same name, a soundtrack that gels perfectly with the cinematic experience for which it was crafted.
This isn't to say, however, that Storytelling is as strong an album as it is a movie; it's certainly afflicted by myriad flaws, some inherent to its status as a soundtrack and others more indicative of problems that the group had been dealing with for some time, namely Murdoch's conviction that he's obligated to give his collaborators free reign with regards to the creative process.
Strangely enough it's the songs proper that tend to be lacking as opposed to the instrumentals, with the nadir of the album being Sarah Martin's grating, uber pretentious and simplistic anthem the title track, which I've loathed ever since I first heard it during the credits of the film before I had even heard of Belle And Sebastian. The track attempts to encapsulate a plethora of the points addressed in the film and ends up sounding like a reductive explanation of the movie's thematics for those who may have missed them the first time around, describing the points in the most superficial, heavy-handed manner possible, wholly lacking the film's complexity and artistry.
The remaining songs are far superior to that debacle, but they're all decidedly lesser works from the band, coming across more as segues for the film than fully formed tracks in their own right. Ironically the title track was the most ambitious song on the album, casting the others as relative throwaways.
Fortunately the album is at least partially redeemed by the instrumentals. The theme entitled Fiction in particular is absolutely beautiful, aural catharsis at its finest. It recurs a multitude of times throughout the album without ever sounding stale or over abused, remaining compelling and emotionally evocative with each reprise, the mark of a truly brilliant piece of music.
None of the other instrumentals live up to that standard, but they all range from pleasant to very good, never growing monotonous or tedious. They betray far more creativity and craftsmanship than the songs proper, easily rivaling some of the melodies they've featured on their conventional albums.
Ultimately Storytelling makes a fine companion piece to the movie, a well written selection of often stunning instrumentals and, for the most part, decent if unremarkable songs. The title track admittedly somewhat detracts from the experience, as it will forever be anathema to me, but it certainly doesn't taint an otherwise accomplished piece of work.
Thus, while considerably weaker than a true Belle And Sebastian product, Storytelling is still an engaging listen, a decent affair that, by soundtrack standards, certainly excels. As an album it's rather lacking, but that's an unfair criteria for a project of this nature to be subjected to, especially one that ultimately accomplishes what it set out to do. In good conscience I can't give it a rating above decent, as it can hardly compare to even a lesser album like Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, but it remains an enjoyable experience, a decent product with scattered moments of sonic brilliance.
Dear Catastrophe Waitress is something of a departure for the band, as it favors a poppier approach as opposed to the cathartic beauty endemic to much of the group's output, resulting in songs with myriad hooks but often little in the way of emotional resonance.
This isn't altogether a bad thing, as the group comfortably resides in the upper echelons of indie pop and are thus equipped with a highly developed acumen for the genre, but it also fails to capture an essential part of the band, limiting the material to a solitary aspect of Belle And Sebastian's traditionally varied, multifaceted musical identity.
This paradigm shift was likely orchestrated to make the band more commercially viable, and indeed many will prefer the instant gratification and axiomatic appeal the album offers in place of their usual musical richness, elegance and subtlety, but this focus on pop needn't have been to the relative exclusion of greater sonic depth and complexity, as the two sides of the band certainly aren't mutually exclusive, as they'd proven time and again on their previous outings.
While this pop monomania does ultimately somewhat detract from the overall experience it doesn't change the fact that Dear Catastrophe Waitress is a very good album, boasting strong melodies and witty lyrics. Furthermore the LP's ameliorated by the fact that Murdoch pens nearly every number, diminishing the frustrating presence of other members tackling songwriting responsibilities.
The record opens on a high note with the bouncy seduction-at-the-workplace anthem Step Into My Office, Baby, followed by the memorable, eccentric title track. Other highlights include Murdoch's solo spot and deviation from the album's pop formula Piazza, New York Catcher, which solely consists of the group's gifted frontman singing and accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, while You Don't Send Me is a hyper catchy number with an emphasis on energetic pop hooks.
There are certainly lesser tracks, both composed by Murdoch and otherwise, but on the whole the album is a rather consistent effort, with tight songwriting and infectious pop arrangements, not to mention archetypal pop production courtesy of pop guru Trevor Horn whose influence is felt throughout the record.
On the whole Dear Catastrophe Waitress is quite a strong outing. Its proliferation of pop can be frustrating as the listener longs for the band's emotionally penetrating ballads of old, not to mention the fact that the ubiquity of these pop elements induces a severe dearth of variety, but there's still little to complain about when one's dealing with a record as immaculately crafted as Dear Catastrophe Waitress.
Thus the album is the band's best product since The Boy With The Arab Strap, and can accordingly be recommended to any devoted follower of the group or indie pop fan alike. The former should prepare themselves for a somewhat different aural experience from the group's norm, but should they keep an open mind they'll encounter a superb collection of indie pop as Belle & Sebastian attempt to translate their usual fare into a more mainstream environment.
Like many groups who're prolific but have a small body of work in terms of full fledged albums Belle And Sebastian produced myriad EPs in between their larger projects. Unfortunately, as is often the case with the format, despite the high caliber of these EPs many were destined to evade the notice of the record buying public during their initial releases, while subsequently it becomes a chore to hunt down these obscure products.
Fortunately this dilemma has been rectified by the release of Push Barman To Open Old Wounds, a compilation containing every single and EP the band had ever released. Nearly all of the material present was never featured on an album proper, ensuring that there's only a modicum of overlap with their more immediately available outings.
Thus this collection is the perfect complement to one's Belle And Sebastian catalogue, providing otherwise unavailable material with minimal redundancies, thus ensuring that it never feels like you're being exploited by the record company by being forced to purchase duplicate copies of the band's content.
Often EPs are a cynical device utilized by record companies to educe money from devoted fans of an artist by releasing what are ostensibly advertisements for the group's next big album, while invariably most of the tracks from said EP will likewise be featured on the band's next product, thus cementing the stupidity of one's purchase.
Fortunately this couldn't be further from the truth in the case of Belle And Sebastian's EPs. The band obviously devoted tremendous time and energy toward crafting these EPs, betraying just as much effort as would be apparent on a regular album. The material from the EPs rarely resurfaces on subsequent outings, as, despite the general stigma toward the medium, these EPs are very clearly true works of art in and of themselves, immaculately sculpted products that were obviously the full recipients of the attention of the group, with regards to both songwriting and performances.
Hence Push Barman To Open Old Wounds is an eminently worthy product, spanning the career of Belle And Sebastian with tracks culled from every stage of the group's development.
There are certainly problems, as due to its massive volume the collection can be erratic at times, exacerbated by the fact that the first disc is substantially superior to the second, but overall there's little in the way of true filler on the compilation, while, like any other Belle And Sebastian product, there are moments of unparalleled beauty scattered throughout the album.
Tracks like Dog On Wheels and A Century Of Fakers rank amongst the best material the band's ever produced. There are undeniable misfires, like the grating spoken A Century Of Elvis, but these are few and far between and don't really disrupt the flow of the album.
While the second disc is indeed inferior to the first it still contains a plethora of strong songs, and thus remains a very rewarding listen, never truly eclipsed by the superiority of the first disc. There is a larger concentration of filler situated on it, and its high points rarely reach the dizzying heights of those on the first disc, but by any other standards it's definitely a worthwhile product.
Releasing all of their singles and EPs in this format was truly the best solution to dispelling the obscurity of their non-album material, providing a convenient and reasonably priced alternative to embarking on a pilgrimage to find the (long out of print) EPs in some remote record store's used albums bin.
Push Barman To Open Old Wounds is indeed the collection that fans of the group have long been clamoring for, and this is certainly understandable, as it easily ranks amongst the best Belle And Sebastian products available for purchase. It would have been a tragedy if this truly brilliant material had never again seen the light of day, irrevocably consigned to absolute obscurity in the band's vaults.
Thus the collection is an essential purchase for any fan of the group, as well as an ideal candidate to introduce any newbie to the elegant world of Belle And Sebastian. As for those for whom greatest hits packs are anathema (like myself), you needn't worry, as given the fact that almost none of these tracks had ever appeared on a true LP this collection can qualify as a true album in its own right, much like the Past Masters series operated for the Beatles.
Much like its predecessor Dear Catastrophe Waitress, The Life Pursuit places a heavy emphasis on indie pop over emotionally transparent balladry, while even the few attempts at the latter like Dress Up In You invariably end up sounding bland and nondescript, pale shadows of the group's once emotionally rich palette.
Fortunately, as was evident on Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the group was more than adept at handling the indie pop genre, with a great facility for generating hooks and infusing personality into even their lighter fare. The band had honed their pop craftsmanship to the point where many of the songs rank as indie pop of the highest order, balancing catchy melodies with the group's innate artistry and intelligence to brilliant results.
Tracks like Sukie In The Graveyard and Funny Little Frog possess all the necessary ingredients to produce indie pop at its finest, eccentric, idiosyncratic tunes that are unconventional yet eminently catchy and accessible and, were they actually heard by causal pop fans (who could get past the offbeat, quirky strangeness inherent to those numbers), guaranteed to procure the group a wider audience with crossover appeal for new demographics.
Not all of the tracks achieve a similar level of quality but there's certainly nothing the least bit offensive (largely because of Murdoch's near dictatorial status on the band's creative side for this release), merely some lesser compositions that prevent The Life Pursuit from realizing its full potential.
The presence of this relatively fillerish material and the recurring paucity of genuinely moving ballads are what impede the album's progress, thus prohibiting it from attaining the level of true excellence.
Nevertheless The Life Pursuit remains a highly accomplished offering, boasting myriad creative, memorable melodies and the band's customary lyrical intelligence and sophisticated humor. It largely adheres to the structure of its predecessor, as if the formula featured on Dear Catastrophe Waitress had become the official new blueprints for future endeavors, a methodology designed to present the band in a more accessible, streamlined fashion. The result is a final product around roughly the same quality as their prior outing, which while quite good poses the danger of inhibiting future progress by religiously following this new modality.
While on future outings they may be curtailed by these self-imposed stylistic limitations, which likewise induce a dearth of diversity on the album (which would have been an insurmountable obstacle had the band utilized all of the material culled from the record's sessions, which yielded close to thirty new tracks), for the moment this pop skewed dynamic still works for the group on this LP, though if it's employed on too many more albums it may breed severe ill will toward the group from fans who feel slighted by this self-bastardization of Belle And Sebastian.
As long as the songwriting is strong, however, these concerns become less problematic, and Murdoch remains one of the most gifted composers on the indie scene. The Life Pursuit features plenty of topnotch indie pop melodies, rendering it a necessary purchase for any Belle And Sebastian follower, even if their patience may be tried by the relentless pop onslaught depicted herein.
Stuart Murdoch was never an earnest, straightforward and emotionally transparent balladeer. As Belle And Sebastian frontman, he's customarily sly and aloof, with a cynical disposition that makes him come off as sardonic and, at times, even snarky. In many respects these emotionally distancing traits are integral to his material, as his work is often nuanced and oblique in ways that would be impossible were he a traditional heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriter. Despite these qualities, however, there is no doubt that Murdoch invests a great deal of emotion in much of his work, leading to material that's just as rich and resonant as that of a more 'sincere' artist.
After a certain point, however, Murdoch began to limit the emotional side of his work in favor of a more accessible, commercial sound. On albums like Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit it becomes clear that he's restricting his emotional palette in an attempt to attract new kinds of listeners, ones never touched by the minimalistic tenderness of Tigermilk's forgotten gems or moved by the sheer cathartic force of Like Dylan In The Movies. This is an audience that would favor the superficial catchiness of Step Into My Office Baby over the expressiveness of I Fought In A War, a demographic that Murdoch has never catered to in the past and, in reality, that might not even include anyone who would ever conceivably buy a Belle And Sebastian album to begin with.
This de-emphasis on emotion and intense focus on a more mainstream pop sound is a severe liability on both Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, one that has thankfully been addressed on Write About Love. On Belle And Sebastian's latest outing Murdoch attempts to restore the emotion that had been so sorely lacking in his recent work, and one would be forgiven for thinking that this must be an unequivocally good thing.
Unfortunately, there are two key flaws that deflate one's high hopes for this emotional renaissance. The first is that emotion in and of itself in not inherently a virtue unless it's accompanied by strong songwriting. The second is that Murdoch is not alone in his quest to recapture the emotion that animated classic Belle And Sebastian songs, as Write About Love is another more democratic album that finds his collaborators likewise exploring their inner feelings.
It's not as if Murdoch's colleagues are bereft of talent, but Belle And Sebastian releases have proven time and again that Stuart Murdoch is the only truly great songwriter in the band. Ironically enough, members like Sarah Martin are at their most palatable when they confine themselves to the more shallow brand of songwriting that I so vehemently criticized on the band's last two albums. This is largely because Martin and the like possess a certain fundamental grasp of the hook, but lack the necessary gifts to advance beyond basic pop craftsmanship.
Sadly Murdoch is not exempt from critique either. The album finds him in poor form by his standards. Admittedly he's responsible for what's by far the best song on Write About Love, namely I Want The World To Stop. This is a track that hits all the right chords on an intellectual, artistic and emotional level, praise that could once be applied to nearly any of Murdoch's numbers. Indeed, there was a time when he could seemingly toss off a track of this caliber with only a modicum of effort, but at this point classics of this nature are few and far between.
This is made abundantly clear when one takes the song Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John into account. Penned by Murdoch himself, the track is easily the nadir of the album, a tedious, hookless and dreary number the likes of which have no place on a Belle And Sebastian album. It's almost comical that the band took a track that's already so colossally flawed and felt a need to add Norah Jones vocals to it, helping the song reach new levels of distastefulness.
It actually seems that the song is meant to be the emotional centerpiece of the album, as Murdoch makes the age-old mistake of believing that by slowing it down, over-emoting on it and needlessly protracting its length a song will automatically become a timeless tearjerker.
Had the track had a better melody it may have been more effective, but in many respects that's the story of the album. Whether its emotion is genuine or not, a track is impotent if it lacks compelling hooks or musical heft. More often than not the emotion here is not backed up by skillful songwriting, thus sabotaging the album in the process.
Strangely enough, what the album lacks is what Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit had in spades. Write About Love is in dire need of more catchy pop melodies. While a surfeit of such tunes was a liability on those two albums, a lack of them is just as egregious a failing. Belle And Sebastian need to establish a better balance between their pop and emotional sides. While their pop songs may have lacked emotion, their emotional songs need these pop melodies in order to truly make their emotions matter.
This doesn't mean that just any pop song will do. The title track may be catchy, but any fan of Belle And Sebastian has heard it before, done better. Songs like I Can See Your Future just sound like the band going through the motions, with hooks that are so basic and familiar that they fail to make good counterbalances to the group's emotional material.
Thus Write About Love is a severe disappointment. The band have the right idea when it comes to restoring the emotional substance that defined the group's classic material, but they simply don't know how to effectively implement it. It's not only pop songs that require melodies, a concept that the band understood thoroughly in their early years but somehow forgot somewhere along the way.