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Belle & Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Rough Trade / Sanctuary, 2003

Rating: 3.4

 

 

Posted: October 9, 2003

By Laurence Station

Talk about strange bedfellows. On Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Trevor Horn, late of '80s New Wavers The Buggles and more experimental New Wavers The Art of Noise (not to mention the successful mastermind behind hits for ABC, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and, er, Tatu, and a thankfully forgotten stint as Jon Anderson's replacement in Yes) puts his bankable talents to work for the laconic, press-shy indie-folk group Belle & Sebastian. Predictably, despite the familiar sound of singer and chief lyricist Stuart Murdoch's earnest, put-upon vocals, the album is dominated by the even more familiar tones and orchestral window-dressing of a man whose touchstones are all decidedly pre-'90s.

Not that Belle & Sebastian, with its obvious and quite often fawning debt to gentle British folk and trippy '60s acid-washed pop, is exactly the most forward-looking band. The key difference, however, is Murdoch's ability to appropriate tritely recognizable elements and successfully integrate them into his private cosmology of bullied schoolboys, sensitive athletes and girls who are into Bible studies and a little S&M. Horn is more concerned with the hook, something that will stick in a listener's head, regardless of the lyrical subject matter. So at the outset, Dear Catastrophe Waitress offers an intriguing parlor game: figuring out which personality dominates, or whether the album achieve a perfect mesh of Horn's keen pop sensibility and Murdoch's trenchant, underdog insights.

Well, Dear Catastrophe Waitress does mesh, all right, but only on the final track, "Stay Loose." From its groovy keyboards and wonderfully gritty middle guitar break, to Murdoch trying on his best detached, Gary Numan-esque plastic soul voice, "Loose" is like some lost New Wave relic as filtered through a cloistered, twee-pop mindset. Here, the Horn-Murdoch collaboration bears its tastiest fruit. Sadly, the rest of the album doesn't fair nearly as well.

"Step into My Office, Baby" is a cheeky take on dating one's boss ("She gave me some vacation / But my strength is in administration"); it's bright and bouncy, with a thumping beat and radio-friendly varnish. Unfortunately, it's also generic, and despite Murdoch's clever phrasing, leaves only a marginal impression. (While it lasts, though, true to the patented Horn formula, it's a toe-tapper.) Likewise, "I'm a Cuckoo" is a jaunty charmer, its all-over-the-place brass emphatically proving that Trevor certainly favors his namesake. But again, that signature Belle & Sebastian sound (Murdoch's voice and gently tumbling melodies) is buried beneath the spit-and-polish production.

Only on the concert favorite "Lord Anthony" do we hear a song that immediately sounds at home with the rest of the band's catalogue. With its pensive acoustic strumming and Murdoch's championing of a sensitive but socially stunted hero, we hear the true voice of Belle & Sebastian -- no matter how hard Murdoch strives to change direction with a high-dollar producer. It's exactly the kind of song the group will ultimately be remembered for.

Obviously, if Belle & Sebastian sought to take more chances sonically, Dear Catastrophe Waitress might have proven a more interesting advancement on the group's basic template. But it's about as far from daring as a band can get, offering the stale and familiar torpor Top of the Pops traffics in. Fans of more traditional pop are unlikely to find it their cup of tea, while diehard Belle & Sebastian fans will probably find it the band's worst-tasting blend to date. On the flipside, some of the songs here may chart higher than anything else the band has released. In that case, mission (safely) accomplished. But at what cost?

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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