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In the mid 1990's Stuart Murdoch and Stuart David came together to form a band known as Belle And Sebastian. With in a year of their coming together they had released their first album "Tigermilk" funded by Stow College's own label "Love Honey". Since then however the band have become a cult favourite and released a further 7 albums, and whilst they've never been a massively successful band they do have a very loyal following and have received praise from both music industry insiders and the media. In fact they've been favourable compared to the likes of The Smiths and Nick Drake (who I have to admit is one of my favourite singers).
The most recent of their albums was the 2010 release "Belle and Sebastian Write About Love", an album that reached #8 on the UK charts and #15 in the US (and charted in the top 100 in at least 6 other countries). Though how good is the actual album? What does it sound like? And most importantly, is it worth listening too?
The album opens with "I Didn't See It Coming" a slow, very easy to listen to indie pop duet (with Stuart Murdoch and Sarah Martin both providing vocals) that actually made it's way in to the UK top 40. Whilst it's not an amazing track it's a very delightful opening to the album and good enough to draw you into wanting to listen to more. Despite the fact the lyrics aren't anything special it's a solid opening tracking.
After being lured in by the opening track we get the very good "Come on Sister" next, a much more up tempo track that is a lot more expansive and lyrically intelligent than the albums opener and is actually a sign of what's to come later on. Wonderfully this lively track is followed by the brilliantly named "Calculating Bimbo" which yet again has wonderful lyrics and despite it being another slower track has the imagery to keep your mind interested throughout.
For me the stand out track is track #4 "I Want the World to Stop" which is another up tempo track that again has wonderful lyrics, fantastic delivery and is undoubtedly a track that everyone needs to listen to. Although it has some slight traits of "The Cure" lyrically it's certainly not got depressing feel of the famous gothic band and in fact feels like a happy song despite somewhat negative sounding lyrics.
The album then slows down again with the soft and tender sounding "Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John" (which features the vocals of the acclaimed Norah Jones along side those of Stuart Murdoch). In terms of sound this is one of the albums most different sounding tracks though again the lyrics are nothing short of excellent and manage to paint some fantastic images throughout.
The title track (of sorts) "Write About Love" is track 6 and has a weird throw back feel to tracks produced a few years ago. Again it's a duet with Murdoch this time partnered by actress Carey Mulligan, and was released as the album's first single, it's another high tempo track and is really an enjoyable listen. Following up is the very strange sounding "I'm Not Living in the Real World" which sounds like it'd fit in to either a cartoon show or a They Might Be Giants album, it sounds like a very enjoyable frolic in all honesty with a lot going on and really...unique.
The album then has the delightfully soft but interesting "The Ghost of Rockschool" (what a great title!) that again has wonderfully images scattered through out the lyrics as well as the fabulous use of a Trombone (I think) which gives the track a wonderfully rich sound. However sadly the song does lull a bit and seems to go on slightly longer that it really needs to.
Track 9 is "Read the Blessed Pages" another quieter track that almost has hints of Sufjan Stevens in it. Perhaps a bit too soft over-all but enjoyable enough to be inoffensive and set up the albums final 2 tracks, the very interesting and flighty sounding "I Can See Your Future" (which features a brass trombone, a cello and Seth Mitchell as the guest guitarist) and the albums final track "Sunday's Pretty Icons" which ends the album brilliantly with a different sound to much of the album.
Overall the quality of tracks is brilliant, however the repeated changes in the albums tempo does become a bit of a nuisance for some reason, especially earlier on when a slow track is followed by a quicker one by a slower one...however overall the album is solid and has plenty of high points that make it worth buying.
'Write About Love' is the eighth studio album from Scottish indie-pop band Belle and Sebastian. Belle and Sebastian have been one of my favourite bands since I was about 14 years old, yet I had been slightly disappointed with the quality of some of their more recent work. It is all still far better than much of the mainstream chart music, but to me, their last album, the Life Pursuit, lacked the humour and vitality of their debut, Tigermilk, and its follow up, If You're Feeling Sinister.
Write About Love signals a definite return to form. Musically, it is far better produced and more professional than the band's earlier offerings, with smooth recordings and arrangements that contrast greatly with the reported shambolic unprofessionalism of their early gigs. One of the highlights of 'Write About Love' is 'I Want the World to Stop'. This is a jaunty, upbeat track which shows just how technically competent the band is; it's impossible not to want to sing along and join in. Generally this is the mood that the whole album follows, though there are also moments of somberness and thoughtfulness. Lyrically, I do not think that Stuart Murdoch lives up to the incredibly high standard he set himself with the group's first three albums, but this is a tall order and not one I ever expected him to be able to fulfil.
A major highlight of the album is the fact that the band collaborate with other artists. The title track of the album features actress Carey Mulligan, of 'Doctor Who' and 'An Education' fame, and Norah Jones provides vocals for 'Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Perfect John'. These are both fantastic tracks, utilising their 'guest stars' well, but in an entirely casual and friendly way; there is no showing off or pretentiousness here. Such qualities seem unthinkable for Belle and Sebastian!
On my first listen to Write About Love, I was somewhat disappointed, partly by the slickness. However, I stuck with it and have fallen in love with it as an album. Stuart Murdoch has clearly realised that he can't sing about misfit teenagers for ever, and while songs like Expectations got me through my own misfit teenage years, the group have moved on to a more mature sound and focus, as, I hope, have I. There are moments of lyrical genius in many of the tracks, and echoes of Belle and Sebastian's earlier work. Murdoch's faith comes through strongly in several of the tracks; this is something that one feels has always influenced his work, most obviously in 'If You Find Yourself Caught in Love', which can be found on the album 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress'.
In conclusion, this is a wonderful album, and despite its slickness and professionalism, it is recognisably the same band that my 14 year old self fell in love with. I would definitely recommend this album to fans and non-fans alike.
Many years ago we had Cool Britannia and easy credit, and we didn't really have the Internet and Simon Cowell. The latter has continued history's habit of putting evil in a black shirt, ruining both popular music and popular television in the process...and the former? Well, as you fire up Google and discover another thing you never knew before Webcrawlers...do you ever think that we've lost something with all this access to information. Don't you wish there were a few secrets left in the world?
Well, a long time ago, in a Glasgow far far away (I'm here all week), in an age before the Internet put all human knowledge at your fingertips and thus wrenched all the mystery out of everything...there was a lovely little band called Belle & Sebastian.
They played the most gorgeously wistful chamber pop imaginable, with chiming guitars, plaintive keyboards and orchestral flourishes, all topped off by the remarkable cracked choirboy's voice of Stuart Murdoch, purity seemingly tarnished by unwanted Catholic knowledge as he sang of childhood and small-scale domestic drama while somehow making the kitchen-sink minutiae of Clydeside sound impossibly glamorous.
'Wrapped Up In Books'
The music was SO good (and in particular the first two albums, 'Tigermilk' and 'If You're Feeling Sinister', ostentatiously adorned as they are with amazing moments of timeless beauty) that the initiates were desperate to know more. But the band weren't playing ball, and their steadfast refusal to adopt a conventional relationship with either the media or their record company's marketing department just made them even more exotic. Band photos? Interviews? Don't be silly. Their preference was to use publicity materials to flesh out the world of the songs, rather than to directly flog their records. And so it was that legions of students and wish-they-still-were-students came to view Glasgow as a wonderland where the blokes were all bohemians in long scarves, the girls all looked like Jean Seberg and all worked in libraries and coffee shops because there was nothing but libraries and coffee shops, every passer-by might be a member of Belle & Sebastian but wasn't telling, and there were lots of toy animals. (Obviously).
And of course for every person utterly smitten by what they heard, saw and read, there were plenty of others who took one listen, screamed 'THIS IS THE TWEE-EST (if that is indeed a word) BAND IN THE HISTORY OF TIME, EVER!' and retreated to the welcoming simian bosom of '(What's The Story) Morning Glory?'
But after four albums incredibly diverse in terms of content (folk, electronica, Northern Soul etc, bizarrely effective at all of them while never seeming to be remotely competent at any of them) the band had hit something of a artistic impasse. Something had to give, or leave, and the leavers were bassist Stuart David (who went off to become a novelist) and critically, Isobel Campbell. Campbell was the band's cellist, Murdoch's ex-girlfriend/muse and the most obvious reference point for anyone bandying the t-w-e-e word about. (It's unfair on Campbell, who's gone on to do some excellent albums that sound a lot less like the mice in 'Bagpuss' let loose in a studio than you think they will). But at the time it managed to liberate the remainder of the band, who seemed suddenly to realise that even librarians leave the library on occasion. Having broken cover on the media profile front (interviews, videos that were 'quirky' rather than 'wilfully obscure') they hired Trevor Horn (yes, that one) as a producer and suddenly sounded like a proper band rather than a bunch of buskers, shiny and tight where once they'd been indistinct and ramshackle.
The resulting album, 'Dear Catastrophe Waitress' was decried as being too slick by some devotees but was actually their strongest set of songs for years. Then came 'The Life Pursuit', still shiny but slightly patchier (a few too many stodgy glam numbers for these ears) but still with some cracking moments. Then they took a break for solo/side projects (Murdoch recording the score for an as-yet-unproduced musical, guitarists Stevie Jackson and Bob Kildea playing with the Vaselines, keyboard player Chris 'Beans' Geddes DJing, and drummer Richard Colburn playing with Snow Patrol), parenthood (trumpet player Mick Cooke) and bespoke purse manufacture (multi-instrumentalist Sarah Martin), before reuniting for 'Write About Love'. Like its predecessor it was produced in LA by Beck's favoured knob-twiddler Tony Hoffer and (according to Murdoch) is a record made out of artistic need rather than artistic want. Fair play; if my drummer had to listen to 'Chasing Cars' every night I'd want to save the poor fecker too.
1) I Didn't See It Coming - It's an inauspicious start: a 20 second fug of distant electronica that might lead the horrified listener to believe they've bought 'Belle & Sebastian Write About Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music With The Volume Turned Down' by mistake. Then the drums start pattering, guitars chime against the piano, and Sarah Martin's voice enters from behind the coffee shop counter. What ensues is a highly pleasant album opener, poppy, bright and with a eminently hooky hook ( 'make me dance, I want to surrender' ), the vocal starts to fade, the guitars start to drift into reverb, the listener starts mentally preparing for the second track...then something strange occurs. A galumphingly cheesy and cheeky keyboard part kicks in, Stuart Murdoch enters the fray upon the shoulders of another huge hook, the production kicks into overdrive and the song recapitulates in a manner that makes you realise that when you thought the song was 'quite good', you were wrong. It's simply glorious, and the best thing I've heard all year.
2) Come On Sister - Murdoch's opening shot is a very strident and uptempo number with another daft keyboard motif driving it. It's a decent rule of thumb that the bolder and brassier the arrangement the less comfortable he'll sound singing over the top of it, and so it proves here: the authority he's trying to convey narrowly eludes him. It's still a fine piece of songwriting craft and damned catchy with it, but a smidge too straightforward by its author's occasionally celestial standards.
3) Calculating Bimbo - He's much more comfortable on a slow electric piano led ballad like this one. Here Murdoch manages the tricky feat of sounding simultaneously contemptuous yet caring for the bimbo of the title, an old flame who felt more for him than he did for her before she traded him in for a better offer (despite which he still remains the preferred port of call in an emotional firestorm). He may write a cracking tune, but here lies his true strength as a writer: he really does come up with plausible characters before getting deep under their skin.
4) I Want The World To Stop - But this is better still: a fabulously constructed track where a subtle setup of vaguely funky bass and drums and a withdrawn wash of organ underpins Murdoch and Martin's melancholic call and response vocals. Not for the first time (nor the last) on 'Write About Love' the song resolves itself in a manner miles away from the destination you'd expected: the muted section is actually the chorus, but the verse is a swirlingly urgent affair; a riot of strings and keyboard motifs and twangy guitar that sounds like it belongs over the titles of a Lew Grade 60s TV show.
5) Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John - A bohemian Glasgow cafe on a damp autumn's day, pale young men wear long white scarves under long black coats while the waitresses (English Lit students attempting to top up their student loans with day jobs) stand around with blankly stressed faces.
Does Norah Jones really belong in this scene? Because here she is duetting with Stuart Murdoch...doing her thing.
It's a thing of which I'm not a fan. I'm not claiming for a moment that the woman can't sing, far from it. Some people consider her vocal style smoky and sultry. But to these ears she's sexy in the manner of a decently varnished Ikea coffee table, someone who seems less a real person and more Frankenstein's monster as built by a record company's A&R department. And she just doesn't fit on this late night bar ballad, an apparent rumination on an intense-yet-brief relationship. Murdoch croons with understated feeling, Jones reads off a cue card that says 'Be sultry! 'Do' sexy!'. A clunker.
6) Write About Love - It's often said that one of most conspicuous signs of creative bankruptcy is a sudden need to have loads of collaborations on your albums, so the volume on the alarm bells increases further on discovering that 'Write About Love' features the actress Carey Mulligan (imagine Keira Knightley, only talented) on vocals. Luckily Mulligan, all doe eyes and bobbed hair, looks like she's lived her life on the cover of a Belle & Sebastian album, and she can hold a tune with aplomb while avoiding Jones' grating perfection. The song (if you overlook how much the intro sounds like The Four Tops' 'Reach Out...I'll Be There') is a fine throwback to the British beat era with Murdoch's stop-start verses imparting wisdom ( 'I know a spell that'll make you well...write about love, it can be in any tense but must make sense' ) to the office girl singing the chorus, taking her lunch up on the roof while imagining a man who's intellectual AND hot. (Oddly, Mulligan has apparently just broken up with Shia LaBeouf, who is surely neither of those things).
7) I'm Not Living In The Real World - Guitarist Stevie Jackson's sole songwriting contribution is even better still, a whirling pop dervish of Wurlitzer organs, skitteringly strummed guitars and semi-taunting 'ooh ooh-ooh ooh' schoolgirl assembly vocals. Jackson's protagonist is a beautifully encapsulated escaping dreamer, bullied at school, doing all the childish things that kids do to try to be grown-ups while still being kids, thinking about girls, and finally discovering that nobody arrives at adulthood as a fully-formed adult. The wordplay is borderline dazzling, the vocal arrangement borderline genius, and it's most definitely the most fun to be had on 'Write About Love'
8) The Ghost Of Rockschool - A lot of the band's hardcore fanbase pine for the days before their worldview featured material beyond what they'd read about in books or seen from their bedroom windows, for a time before they could afford slick production...for such as these 'The Ghost of Rockschool' will be like manna from heaven. Kind of appropriate, given that it's an old-style B&S song with added God.
Stuart Murdoch is a devout Christian, a man who spent the band's early years living in a church and acting as its caretaker. He's always written songs with religious imagery but it's only recently that he's actually dealt with his own faith. Fortunately he's not the overbearing sort, and atheists such as I can safely approach without the worry of being hectored. That said, the word 'God' does crop up 14 times on this track, but as it's a lovely languid tune (sufficiently languorous in the middle that you're surprised that it hasn't actually finished) with some seriously gorgeous trumpet he can have the atheists equivalent of a Papal pardon.
9) Read The Blessed Pages - Even more low-key and personal is 'Read the Blessed Pages', basically Murdoch's voice, a picked acoustic guitar and an orchestra of recorders (it's Belle & Sebastian, after all) in the middle eight. All the pop sheen of the last few years hasn't removed his ability to sound deeply delicate and fragile on this nakedly autobiographical number about the band and how much his late father loved them. It's very much the kind of song that will polarise opinion, but for those of us who can genuinely relate to the subject matter it's incredibly moving.
10) I Can See Your Future - It's a measure of how far she's come as a songwriter in the ten years since she penned the interestingly awful 'Waiting For The Moon To Rise' that Sarah Martin's other song on the album is almost as much of a standout as the first. A brassy fanfare begets some jauntily chugging melancholia: the tale of a girl who thinks her partner is leaving her behind so she uses the twin weapons of a) reminiscing about the good times and b) a warning that this might actually be as good as life gets.
'I can see your future...there's nobody around'
The whole thing is coloured by a quite sumptuous strings 'n' brass arrangement, highlighted in a marvellous little middle eight. Here Martin's voice, usually a bit formulaically breathy and girly (and thus best utilised as backdrop) becomes an instrument of genuine longing and pathos. Well done that girl.
11) Sunday's Pretty Icons - 'Write About Love' closes with a misshapen but marvellous Murdoch offering, musically cheery but lyrically downbeat (until you actually read the lyrics and realise it's probably hugely upbeat but possibly about God...or death...he's a clever swine is Stuart Murdoch). One guitar distorts while the others jangles, keyboards wash, tambourines shake and vocals sink into the mix, and then...
'Every girl you ever admired,
Every boy you ever desired,
Every love you ever forgot,
Every person that you despised,
...before we get a keyboard solo that quite fabulously sounds like it belongs in a different song entirely while somehow fitting like a glove.
'Sunday's Pretty Icons' is a fair microcosm of the character of 'Write About Love' as a whole; it seems a bit wonky and all-over-the-coffee-shop, you feel it's not quite fitting together, but it keeps you listening until the realisation hits you...you wouldn't want the damned thing any other way.
I spent a lovely week in County Donegal last October, climbing the hills (as is my wont), wombling along the magnificent beaches (because, erm, they're magnificent) and drinking in the endemic-but-amiable local madness. And during my Kia-borne travels, I was soundtracked by the just-released-that-week 'Write About Love'. You can tell a lot about a record by its ability to either distract you from the wondrous Irish landscape or console you because impenetrable rain is rendering that landscape invisible. I've fallen in love with a lot of albums while driving around Ireland in rubbish rental cars.
At first I was borderline disappointed. But there were obvious standouts (Sarah Martin's songs, Stevie Jackson's song, 'I Want The World To Stop'), so I concentrated on them. Hours slipped by, giving way to days, and I rationalised that I couldn't really reduce the album to an EP by just listening to four tracks. So I began to slip in a few of the others...and realised I really liked the keyboard bit on the last song...and discovered that the trumpet on 'The Ghost of Rockschool' gave me the shivers..and almost had an unmanly moment when I worked out what 'Read The Blessed Pages' was about. In short, complete surrender. (Well, nearly. Sorry Norah).
Meanwhile, all my breakfasts had been consumed dancing round the kitchen to a friend's Motown compilation CD, and I began to see the 60/70s Detroit influence sprinkled atop 'Write About Love'. So, by the drive back to the airport I'd decided that it was a worthy addition to an excellent back-catalogue (three stars had become four...it's not far off five at the time of writing), and that after 39 years, I do actually really like Motown after all.
'Put The Book Back On The Shelf'
So, 'Write About Love' achieves what it presumably set out to do: to weld the band's latter-day slickness with its former intense slice-of-life lyrical concerns and emerge with a serving of tunefully optimistic wistfulness. But for the fan it's hard not to listen and feel a tinge of genuine sadness, for while the band have never so successfully married the two distinct periods of their output before, the fact that they have here leaves one wondering if there's anywhere left for them to go, and whether a band 15 years into a career and sporting personnel easing into their forties have any remaining creative wallop with which to go there. If this does prove to be their swansong then it's a lovely one, serving not only as a reminder of just how excellent they were, but of the ability of a really good album to get better rather than worse over time.
So join me in raising a frothy cappuccino and a nice something from the patisserie to Belle & Sebastian, the last of the great British indie bands. They'll be mourned in places way beyond bedsits, libraries and coffee shops when they're gone.
(Previously on Ciao)
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 I Didn't See It Coming
2 Come On Sister
3 Calculating Bimbo
4 I Want The World To Stop
5 Little Lou Ugly Jack Prophet John
6 Write About Love
7 I'm Not Living In The Real World
8 Ghost Of Rockschool
9 Read The Blessed Pages
10 I Can See Your Future
11 Sunday's Pretty Icons