October 21, 2003

Belle & Sebastian "Dear Catastrophe Waitress"

I should preface this review with an admission. I never expected to review this record. Heck, I never expected to buy this record. See, I do not consider myself a fan of Belle & Sebastian. I have never owned--nor have I ever had a desire to own--any of their records. I heard If You're Feeling Sinister once, and I had no desire to hear more. As my opinion had been polarized many moons ago, I gave Dear Catastrophe Waitress no thought; why should I care? When it was announced that this album was to be produced by Trevor Horn, my curiosity was quickly piqued, and last week, I was asked what I thought of the album. I considered giving her my usual"I don't know and don't care" line, but my overwhelming curiosity got the better of me, and for the first time in years, I wanted to hear a Belle & Sebastian record.

It must be extremely nice to be Stuart Murdoch. Seven years of critical acclaim has certainly cemented his career, and it's safe to say that Murdoch has reached the Vegas-era Elvis stage of his career. Much like the King of Rock and Roll, to the rabid, devoted fans, Belle & Sebastian can do no wrong. They've made some disappointing records over the past year or two, yet they've survived the bad reviews with the ease and comfort of a well-established star. If Murdoch and his (apparently) ever-changing cast of Sebastians were to do nothing more than retread previous albums, nobody would really complain; after all, blind devotion thrives on the repetition of past glories. Stuart Murdoch could then rest a bit easier at night, as he would not have to worry about what kind of record he should make.

Of course, when an artist reaches that point in their career, one should worry about them. If history has taught us anything, it's that complacency kills: it kills great bands, it kills creative growth, it kills the spark that once made a great band/artist special; on rare occasions, it actually kills the artist. Of course, every band who establishes themselves in the public eye is faced with a frustrating catch-22, and it's one that must be maddening for those who have to face it. While it's true that an artist who turns their back on their fans in the name of 'creativity' is guilty of artistic self-importance, it's equally wrong for an artist to do nothing but give their fans the exact same thing over and over, in order to 'please the fans.'

On one level, it's obvious that Murdoch didn't want to mess much with the Belle & Sebastian formula, and that makes Dear Catastrophe Waitress an extremely complacent, sterile, risk-free record. Think they're not being complacent? Just listen to the chorus of the utterly revelatory "You Don't Send Me": "Listen honey, there is nothing you can say to surprise me/Listen honey there is nothing you can do to offend me anymore." Is he making some sort of cute commentary about a dull relationship, or is he looking in the mirror and commenting upon the fact that he's not going to give you, dear listener, nothing you wouldn't expect from Belle & Sebastian? Personally, I think he's telling all in song. And what excactly does it say about a band who never mentions who is in the band? Nowhere--nowhere--is a band lineup given; I am assuming that by this point, we should know who is in Belle & Sebastian. Then again, maybe Murdoch couldn't spare one line from his five-page diary entry/liner notes/waste of time. I guess such pretension is to be expected; let's not forget that we are talking about Belle & Sebastian here. ( It could be worse; he could have given us six pages of rambling, unintelligible babble, complete with even more name-dropping, and for once, I'm happy that Roddy Frame's name wasn't brought up in discussion.)

What makes this even more frustrating, though, is that I really can't believe that Trevor Horn was hired to keep up the Belle & Sebastian status quo. After all, this is the man who produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Art of Noise and The Buggles, so it's hard not to think that the collaboration would produce something neat. (Then again, Horn also produced Seal, Paul McCartney and taTu, so such a thing could be a mixed blessing, but let's not go there.) For this, I must give Murdoch credit; the combination of Horn and Sebastian is certainly interesting. Of course, seeing as the combination seems highly unlikely, Horn's ideas and production gimmicks are terribly obvious; Dear Catastrophe Waitress has a driving, upbeat and pseudo-happy pulse that cannot be overlooked, and at times it sounds terribly unnatural. The end result? Horn's made the premier conjurers of the ghost of Nick Drake sound painfully like a folkier, feminine-sounding version of Stereolab. Think that comparison is a half-interested music writer grasping at straws for a comparison? Imagine Laetitia Sadier and the late Mary Hansen singing "Step Into My Office, Baby," "You Don't Send Me," or "If She Wants Me," (to name but three songs as examples) and the resemblence is disturbing.

It certainly piqued my curiosity to learn that Trever Horn would be producing their album. If anything made me a bit more receptive to their new record, it's that. When I first put Dear Catastrophe Waitress in my stereo, there were many, many times I wanted to take it out and listen to something that was merely mediocre, because I wanted to listen to something better. I can't explain why, but just as I reached for the eject button, some little hook or Hornism made me stop and listen, as if some sort of subliminal message was saying "please keep listening! please keep listening!" To be fair, Horn has added some wonderful hooks; though I haven't really listened to most of the album, "Step Into My Office, Baby," "You Don't Send Me," and "I'm A Cuckoo" are certainly hook-filled numbers that will make you smile and will make you want to hit the repeat button. I can't help thinking, though, that it's Trevor Horn's magic--and his magic alone--that makes this album pleasant. Nice, even. Am I listening to Dear Catastrophe Waitress because Belle & Sebastian made a great record, or am I listening to it because Trevor Horn made it listenable? I'm gonna have to live with that one for a while.

What, then, should you take away from this record? If you're a fan, there's nothing here that will offend you. They don't want to put their career on the line; after all, you can't charge fifty bucks a ticket if nobody wants to see you. If you're not a fan, then you might like this record. You might not, though. It all depends on how you feel about self-aware Scottish pop songwriters who think they're smarter than you. Belle & Sebastian make music to appeal to college professors and their sullen teenage daughters who want to feel validated in their tastes, and their latest offering simply gives the dour, sourpuss types a reason to dance and crack a smile. (Maybe that's why they hate it so!) Dear Catastrophe Waitress hasn't made me a fan, but I haven't been utterly repulsed by it, either. It's nice, inoffensive pop music, how could I possibly be repulsed? I doubt it's something I'll listen to very much, because records by Camera Obscura and Would-Be-Goods are so much better and are much more satisfying, even though the one or two highlights are really enjoyable. Ultimately, though, Belle & Sebastian have risked nothing and, once again, have given us a new album that contains absolutely nothing new.

I'm sure Elvis would be impressed.

--Joseph Kyle

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