Title: Belles ring the changes
Author: Kitty Empire
Source: The Observer
Publish date: Sunday October 5, 2003
The word ‘indie’ crops up often in the sleevenotes that accompany Belle & Sebastian’s fifth album. Every so often, band fulcrum Stuart Murdoch drops a reference to running ‘indie errands’ or ‘the cutest little indie raver’ (who turns out to be a West Highland Terrier called Fawcett) in among his musings on photography and the Glaswegian climate. Murdoch’s pointedly toying with the word, trying to make it nonsensical. For it has dogged his band, for good and ill, from their inception as a college project in the mid-Nineties until now.
As a term, ‘indie’ is a bit like ‘politically correct’. Whether it is an insult or an article of faith rather depends on where you stand. But fans and detractors alike could agree that the Belles were it. Named for a twee French children’s pro gramme, the septet operated as an insular collective, hated publicity, and recorded for a minuscule label. In song, their wispiness could stir up blood lust in even normally mild-mannered folk. The tunes themselves owed a great debt to Simon & Garfunkel and Sixties French pop, and dealt principally with bookish teen ardour.
The Belles were an easy target. What their tormentors failed to spot, however, was that Belle & Sebastian were the rightful heirs to The Smiths. When they won their Brit award from under the noses of Steps in 1999, it was a shock victory for a clever, self-sufficient, fey David over a vapid industry’s Goliath. But this guerrilla act never translated into major pop success: unlike Pulp or The Divine Comedy, Belle & Sebastian stayed a cult band - albeit one that is big enough to play the same venues as The White Stripes in the States. And most will recognise the tune that plays out Channel 4’s Teachers as the Belles’ old ‘Boy With The Arab Strap’.
Hardly the limp underachievers of ‘indie’ repute, then. But as their fifth album attests, Belle & Sebastian have finally taken leave of ‘indie’ and blossomed into a grown-up orchestral pop band with refocused priorities. Their label may be independent, and their album titles resiliently bookish, but a relaxed Stuart Murdoch no longer scorns interviews.
His influences have expanded to include soul, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Elvis Costello and even Thin Lizzy. He has confessed, too, to ambitions beyond a cult following. To this end, Dear Catastrophe Waitress was produced by Trevor Horn, the infamous synthetic Svengali behind Frankie Goes To Hollywood and faux-Sapphic teen popstrels Tatu.
Diehard fans needn’t have worried: Horn’s presence is benign, focused on magnifying the band’s sound, whipping the horn section on and coaxing great vocal performances out of Murdoch. The sunny, revealing ‘If She Wants Me’, for instance, sees Murdoch taking flight with a Caledonian soul falsetto. On the album’s glittering centre-piece, ‘I’m A Cuckoo’, his singing bounces along easily, off-hand and passionate by turns, as the band swing out of their safe furrow and into something greater. Indie, schmindie, you can almost hear him scoffing.
Of course, Belle & Sebastian still sound resolutely like themselves - ‘Wrapped Up In Books’ and the four-track rendition of ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ are textbook Belle. But the new ground is really far out: ‘Stay Loose’, the album’s closing track, recalls The Clash’s sing-song pop, Squeeze and even Two-Tone. While their last album, 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant, was simply a decent reiteration of a tune they knew well, Catastrophe Waitress positively fizzes with new vigour.
Murdoch is more personal, happy to write about his faith, the war and about ‘losing a singer’ - this last a veiled reference to the dulcet-toned Isobel Campbell, his former partner whose departure from the Belle camp ushered in this rebirth, at least in part.
Some songs hang back, like sulky teens. The adolescent ‘Lord Anthony’ actually predates Belle & Sebastian, and sounds it. Murdoch’s normally dependable co-writer Stevie Jackson falters on ‘Roy Walker’, an overcomplicated tune from a bad musical. But when the Belles allow themselves to think big, they rise to the occasion. Dear Catastrophe Waitress isn’t a very good record from a band of ‘indie’ survivors trying to shake off the dread tag. It’s just a very good record, full stop.