The pop magic that Belle and Sebastian excels at struggles to survive on the band’s new album because its dance-heavy vibe plays against their strengths.
By Matt Hanson
Belle and Sebastian is the kind of band that seems tailor made for a cult following. The Scottish indie band’s distinctive mix of unselfconsciously literary lyrics, warm harmonies, and whimsically catchy chords and hooks would seem to be an acquired taste, a bit too precious to appeal to more than a small coterie of admirers.
Somehow, Belle and Sebastian have avoided being slotted as a niche band, managing to pull off the difficult feat of being accessible, sincere, and enigmatic at the same time. Belle and Sebastian’s records are filled with lulling melodies that are equal parts intimate and jejune; they are the whispery musical accompaniment for the hyperliterate nursery rhymes from a childhood you never had.
Their concert at Boston’s The House of Blues on March 30th was packed with an engaged, energetic crowd that received plenty of gratitude back from the band. That might have been because Stuart Murdoch, Belle and Sebastian’s principal singer/songwriter, informed the audience midway through their lively set that they’ve been playing the venue for years and “Boston never lets us down.”
From any other band, a comment like this could easily have been construed as showbiz schmaltz, not to say pandering, but the last quality anyone would associate with Belle and Sebastian is insincerity.
Amiably chatting up the packed house between songs, Murdoch remarked on our epic winter snowfall and dedicated the lovely ballad “The Fox in the Snow” to our record-breaking storm-fest. As if this weren’t enough, Murdoch saw fit to mention that his wife is a native Bostonian, hailing from Jamaica Plain, which got almost as much applause as his admission that this concert happened to be the first on the new North American tour.
The band was eager to dig into their back catalogue. Particularly buoyant tunes like “If She Wants Me” and the delightful “I’m A Cuckoo” set the joyful tone for the evening. The band performed in front of a large screen on which projections of various popular culture phenomena whizzed by at various sizes and speeds. An unidentified woman introduced the band and occasionally reappeared on the screen to check in with the audience.
For an essentially word-based band, it was surprising how much emphasis was put on the visual. Projections of excerpts of the lyrics alternated with vintage photographs and abstract video snippets in which people entered rooms and then started up impromptu dance parties. A song-length interlude featured clips spliced from various old Nintendo games, an idea which seemed more random and odd than anything else.
Despite the impression made by the show, Belle and Sebastian have made a decision to veer from their quirky folk roots and re-imagine their sound. Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, their new record, marks a departure from their customary tuneful approach. Girls is much more of a dance-heavy LP, almost overbearingly so; sometimes it’s too dependent on anthemic synths and club-friendly beats. The band’s characteristic flowing melodic lines remain, weaving in and out of the more glitzy aspects of the tech-heavy production. Still, the overall feel of the record is reminiscent of the glittering eighties, a la Blondie, rather than the playful, innocent, folksy flower power of previous efforts.
The pop magic that Belle and Sebastian excels at struggles to survive in this context because the dance-heavy vibe plays against their strengths. Even the cover art for the new album is a drastic departure from the homey imagery of rain-washed windows and old Kafka paperbacks on the band’s previous records: it is stark, gray and white, a trio of glazed faces peering imperiously at the viewer flanked by ominous and inexplicable crutches.
Of course, Belle and Sebastian have not lost their songwriting skills. But they are attempting to mix them into an entirely different style. “The Party Line” is a catchy new single that would be completely out of place on any of the band’s previous records. When the new approach works, as in “Nobody’s Empire” or “Ever Had A Little Faith,” we hear Belle and Sebastian’s lyrical and melodic charms in a refreshingly different context: the change in instrumentation juices the songs up rather than weighs them down.
When the songs don’t have a strong structural foundation, as in the plodding “Enter Sylvia Plath” and “The Cat With The Cream,” the effect is dull — alienating and interminable. Performed live, however, the best of Belle and Sebastian’s new tunes played quite well, expanding the band’s sonic reach without sounding as if they were pushing experimentation for experimentation’s sake.
One couldn’t help but notice that what actually got the majority of the audience up and dancing wasn’t just the familiar material from farther back in the catalogue, but songs which didn’t strain at getting the listener to cut a rug. “The Boy With the Arab Strap” is my favorite song of theirs, and not just because it’s the first Belle and Sebastian song I ever heard, back in 1997. Interestingly, this nuanced tune got more of the audience up and dancing than any of the others.
The power of the subtle invitation to boogie was proved by another song from the same record; “Sleep The Clock Around” ended the set beautifully. Various fans were called up onstage to join the band. It’s part of Belle and Sebastian’s particular appeal that they can get a crowd of people gleefully singing and bouncing along to a song whose chorus extols the virtues of sleeping all day. If the debut show at The House of Blues is any indication, Belle and Sebastian’s new tour will go swimmingly indeed, provided they stay true to the sound that makes the girls really want to dance.
Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.