cartwheels into your heart

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

(Another track on that B&S album, "You Don't Send Me," bears an uncanny resemblance to that old Drifters song, "On Broadway." They say the neon lights are bright in Glasgow...)

Sometimes, I have trouble getting excited about new records by old favorites, especially if those old favorites are lo-fi, cardigan-wearing indie rockers and these days my curiosity is piqued most by glossy, bass-thumpin’ pop, electronic, and hip-hop. The High Llamas just released an album with practically no drums, much less glitchy flourishes, and even though Sean O’Hagan may be the best performer I’ve ever seen with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, I’m not in the mood for it.

Even though I’ve never quite agreed with the oft-repeated claim that Belle & Sebastian has been all downhill since Tigermilk, I was worried that Dear Catastrophe Waitress might still feature the kind of earnest yet plodding songs (“Seymour Stein,” “The Chalet Line”), recorded at a weirdly low volume, that didn’t quite work then and are exactly what I want to avoid now.

Fortunately, this isn’t the case. In fact, the last few times I’ve listened to the record, the thought that sticks with me is that some of these songs sound like they should be in a musical! The band has always had that hand-clapping sixties pop feel, but with a few exceptions, they’ve traded in their bedroom melancholy for a bigger, more cleverly arranged, and downright playful sound. And strangely, what that often approaches is the sound of post-sixties musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar or even Hedwig and the Angry Inch, inspired by the primitive energy of rock and roll but still orchestrated, both musically (there’s a brass section) and theatrically (it’s more self-aware).

“Step into My Office, Baby,” for instance, the album’s lead-off track and single, could be the opening number to a 1950’s workplace comedy (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying?), with its punchy beat, lyrics consisting of silly sexual euphemisms, and two moments where I imagine the dancers on stage freeze and the spotlight narrows on our lead, Stuart, whose sweet tenor solo lifts toward the rafters just before the drums pick up again. This song is immediately followed by the title track, with its rapidly swirling strings, bleating trumpet, and huge cymbal crashes straight out of a Leonard Bernstein overture.

But it’s “Roy Walker” that really takes the cake. First, a mixed-gender chorus cheerily coos, “I wondered all night about you / I’ve been here for years, just wanderin’ around the neighborhood.” (Is it just me, or does the word neighborhood makes it ten times more like a musical?) Then, our second male lead, Stevie, sings his solo while the cast snaps their fingers in a circle around him; the verses are crammed with syllables, Sondheim-like. And before long, it’s the eight-bar instrumental break, with woodblocks, noisemakers, and an electric guitar solo: I like to picture the snappily dressed men tossing their female dance partners in the air and catching them; I half expect to hear improvised whoops and cheers.

Or maybe, as some have suggested, this is just a 1970’s AM pop sound, akin to the Carpenters or the Osmonds. In either case, it’s a step in the right direction.

Thursday, October 09, 2003

"...I think most of us can hardly avoid being critical, either by the amount of time we give to art, or by our lack of time, what we trouble to learn about it, or forget about it, what we choose to value or to ignore. Well, a writer shares this natural critical behavior with all spectators. But when he starts to write, the normalcy of the critical spirit transforms itself, I think, into the perversity of the critical act. For it is only in writing about his artistic experiences that a man realizes how unrecoverable they are and, worse still, that he is a professional handler or at least observer of his own feelings. He must tamper in some manner with his reactions in order to externalize them. It is a very nervous-making proposition."

--Max Kozloff, "Critical Schizophrenia and the Intentionalist Method" (1965)