On their fifth full-length album, Dear Catastrophe
Waitress
, Belle & Sebastian redeem themselves after a
series of depressingly mediocre albums and recall the energy of
their first two great records. While retaining the sarcasm and
levity of earlier work, the band has clearly matured. Delicate,
precocious shoegazing has become intrepid, rhinestone-studded
confidence.

Mira Levitan

Contrasting styles between adjacent musical sections appear
throughout the album; this is the primary sign of Belle &
Sebastian’s recent metamorphosis. The band’s earlier work,
including songs on the flawless If You’re Feeling Sinister,
retained aural homogeneity. After collaborating with former Buggles
member and producer Trevor Horn, the days of B&S as a musical
democracy are over, but it has found more ways to tweak, expand and
embellish its vision.

The musical additions to B&S’s oeuvre include placing brass
and strings where subtle keyboards would have fit in earlier
incarnations. Besides six band members, 42 additional musicians
play everything from bass trombone to cor anglais to viola,
expanding the dimensions of the band’s pop style with orchestral
sections.

While some groups appropriate old styles with a satirical bent,
these sweet Glaswegians wear their Donny and Marie smiles without a
hint of irony.

Belief in the truth of their art is what “sells”
Waitress; the new, tricked-out songs of intimacy and
introspection avoid becoming bratty or self-indulgent, and instead
provide the best bedroom dancing tunes this year.

Opener “Step into My Office, Baby” sets the topsy-turvy mood of
Waitress. This romp through the sexual innuendo of the
nine-to-five life relies on silly clichés, but its
alternation of rollicking verse and Bacharach-esque chorus provides
an impressive start.

New songs like the title track show B&S’s current taste for
dramatic contrasts, while the soft respite of “Lord Anthony,” the
obligatory tale of an outcast youngster, is a song of Murdoch’s
from years back. “If She Wants Me” and the festive “Wrapped Up in
Books” stabilize an experimental album, featuring new elements but
providing familiarity for longtime fans.

Despite the grin-inducing qualities of Waitress, its low
point occurs at an inconvenient spot in the middle of the album.
Besides its vague ruminations on outdoor fun, “Asleep on a Sunbeam”
lacks a decent vocalist: Lone female band member Sarah cannot
inspire the boring lyrics with her breathy, inflectionless
performance.

In “Piazza, New York Catcher” Murdoch seamlessly combines lines
like “I love you I’ve a drowning grip on your adoring face” with
details of the rumors behind New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza’s
sexual orientation. The only song on the album featuring lone
guitar and voice, its spare, intimate construction and Murdoch’s
detached lyrical agility add hushed impetus. In the Motown
tradition, he sings of the pain, confusion and desperation that
follow a breakup over one of the band’s cheeriest instrumental
arrangements in the sublime “I’m a Cuckoo.”

Densely orchestrated “Roy Walker” and “If You Find Yourself
Caught in Love” would sound at home on a mid-’60s Beatles album or
in a crazy-ass ’70s musical – all spotlights, sequins and
choreography. To close the album, Murdoch channels Elvis Costello’s
gravelly style on “Stay Loose.”

Belle & Sebastian took a serious risk adding sprinkles to
their heavily frosted style, but Waitress proves that the
band has the balls to get away with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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