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Fork in the Road of Life

 

Belle & Sebastian: The Life Pursuit

Matador, 2006

Rating: 3.7

 

Posted: February 6, 2006

By Laurence Station

Retreat to the self-produced, graceful whimsy typified by 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister or further expand their repertoire under the guiding hand of an established producer, as with 2003’s Trevor Horn-overseen Dear Catastrophe Waitress? On Belle & Sebastian’s seventh release, The Life Pursuit, the Glaswegian septet more or less splits the difference, crafting an album that tries new things (a tougher, more muscular sound, for one) and still hearkens back to the wry, spot-on narratives lead singer/songwriter Stuart Murdoch excels at.

Tony Hoffer (Beck, Idlewild, Supergrass) deserves much of the credit for adding a healthy dose of testosterone to the Belle & Sebastian sound. “White Collar Boy” opens with a fuzzy guitar crunch reminiscent of Norman Greenbaum’s "Spirit in the Sky" and rumbles along with T-Rex-inspired assertiveness that makes potentially puerile lines like “White collar, got dirt in your pants / You got egg in your hair / You got spit in your chin” sound intimidating (though the delivery is a still too peppy to pull the sentiment off convincingly).

“The Blues are Still Blue” sports all the swing and swagger of mid-’70s Bowie and features the album’s best refrain: “I left my lady in the launderette / You can put some money on it, you can place a little bet / That when I see my lady / The black will be grey and the white will be grey / But the blues are still blue.” “Funny Little Frog” takes Murdoch’s patented “desire at a distance” slant and backs it with arresting horns and a sturdy beat.

Unlike Horn, Hoffer never overwhelms the distinctive Belle & Sebastian sound. The Life Pursuit may not play like any other album in the group’s catalog, but it most certainly shares the same DNA. Of course it helps that there are several “classic” B&S tracks peppering the thirteen song set. Principal among these is “Dress Up In You”, a bitter ditty about jealously and regret that nails its lead subject with the brilliant couplet “If I could have a second skin / I’d probably dress up in you”.

The union of Hoffer’s robust production techniques and Murdoch’s natural storytelling inclinations is best utilized on the two-part “Act of the Apostle,” in which the desire to break free (be it through music, religion or both) is expressed against a full-bodied sound that bolsters rather than dwarfs the subtlety of the wordplay, as on the chorus of the first part, which crests with the pleading line “If I could make sense of it all” and politely recedes when the tale picks up again.

Where Hoffer and B&S are at odds is best evidenced on the fast tempo “Sukie in the Graveyard,” about another character seeking a better lot in life. Here, however, the breakneck speed of the delivery never gives the narrative a chance to breathe. Hence, such intriguing lines as “She had the grace of an eel, sleek and stark / As the shadows played tricks on the girl in the dark” practically get buried in the mix.

The Life Pursuit isn't so much a conflicted Belle & Sebastian as it is the sound of a band continuing to evolve its sound without sacrificing its core identity. It's certainly not the best place for a newcomer to start, but it's an interesting (if not wholly satisfying) addition to the band's body of work.

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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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