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coverpic flag Scotland - Full Moon 87 - 11/09/03

Belle And Sebastian
Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Rough Trade

As I went over to the counter to buy the first new Belle and Sebastian offering in three years (excluding the Storytelling movie soundtrack that in my opinion is best forgotten) I was feeling excitement and trepidation. After all Belle and Sebastian (known henceforth as B&S) is one of my favourite bands, if not my favourite one, and there is nothing I'd like to see less than them sinking into an oblivion of artists past their peak, forced to do Vegas shows or worse. Luckily B&S seem to want to avoid that stage, as their new album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, is as affecting and accomplished as in their days of yore.

Well, it could be a bit of an overstatement to say that they want to avoid a Las Vegas stage, due to the fact that in many of their arrangements on this album they have a tendency to sound like something akin to Barry Manilow's "Copa Cabana", mixed together with traditional B&S elements. The songs arrangement sounds more often than not upbeat and optimistic, replacing the gently strumming acoustic guitars and wry acoustic arrangements of previous albums with full, much more prominent arrangements, with conga drums and electric guitars spewing out catchy hooks. Thus on the first track of the album (Step Into My Office Baby), instead of starting with hushed up, breathy vocals of Stuart Murdoch in the way that the bands two greatest records start (The Boy With The Arab Strap and If You're Feeling Sinister) starts with a swirling, lone, almost comic trumpet note.

From the names of the songs ("I'm a Cuckoo", "Stay Loose", "If She Wants Me", etc.) it might seem that this album will be much lighter in content and less complex in its lyrics than previous B&S offerings, and it is true in a way. The lyrics on this album are thoroughly soaked with camp (with the notable exception of Lord Anthony, a quiet ballad in the style of more classic B&S). But in my opinion Stuart Murdoch's greatness of as a lyricist (and poet) shines through in this album equally and even more than in previous albums exactly because of the fact that even due to the many campy lines (and let me tell you, rhymes like "I'd rather be in Tokyo/I'd rather listen to Thin Lizzy-oh" are hilarious), the songs contain tangible emotions, and moreover manage to actually touch me. Only Stuart Murdoch can manage to pull off the Tokyo line mentioned above and then switch to bittersweet sentiment with a line like "I see a wilderness for you and me/punctuated by philosophy!" (All in the same song, I'm a Cuckoo). And albeit the supposed lighter atmosphere thoughts about love, mortality and accomplishment ("If I could do just one near perfect thing I'd be happy/ They'd write it on my grave or when they scatter my ashes" from "If She Wants Me") still circulate through Stuart Murdoch's head and pen.

Belle and Sebastian changed. It is a natural process for a band that never could quite settle down on one particular sound, constantly modifying and ameliorating it. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, with its songs that feel as familiar and accessible as comfortable blankets, settles down on a genre that is louder, campier and farther from the folky ways of previous B&S albums, but it still has more than enough of the classic bittersweet, melancholy romantic spirit of the band (not to mention some absolutely wonderful and unforgettable songs) to make it the best Belle and Sebastian album since If You're Feeling Sinister.

Copyright © 2003 Dan Ershov e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Belle & Sebastian articles/reviews: 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds Of Light, Belle and Sebastian Write About Love, Dog on Wheels, Girls In Peacetime Want to Dance, Greek Theatre, UC Berkeley, CA, 22.08.2003, Lazy Line Painter Jane, The Life Pursuit, The Third Eye Centre, Warfield Theater, San Francisco, USA, 9.9.01.

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