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Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress

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Artist: Belle and Sebastian

Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Label: Rough Trade / World's Fair

Review date: Oct. 24, 2003

The cover shot of Dear Catastrophe Waitress immediately signaled something was out of place. Where was the dire disinterest of If You’re Feeling Sinister's Kafka chick, or The Boy With the Arab Strap's not so strapping boy? The orange image staring back from Belle & Sebastian’s latest – a disastrous scene at a crowded Italian restaurant – was hectic, complicated and bereft of apathy. The pretty girl shoots a supercilious stare at the camera, while a spaghetti-clad patron tries his best to be both comforting and suave simultaneously. Her “Stressée moi? Jamais” t-shirt even adds a bit of irony to the humorous debacle.

The exaggerated nature of Dear Catastrophe Waitress’s cover screams pantomime, maybe even a willingness to chuckle at that image in the mirror – a symbolic departure from the cover of Belle & Sebastian’s last proper full-length, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, a record that put them on the Soundscan map, but didn’t come close to the magic contained on the group’s first three LPs. The album sounded stale; it wasn’t that Stuart Murdoch’s halcyon voice was losing its charm (an impossibility), it’s just that the group’s ability to pen memorable melodies using the same five-year-old formula was bordering on exhaustion.

It’s been three years since that apparent bout with stagnation and a lot has changed for Belle & Sebastian. Stuart David left the group to work on his then side-project Looper, cellist Isobel Campbell also took off and just recently released her debut solo album, and the ensemble jumped from micro-indie Jeepster to Rough Trade Records. Most importantly, somewhere along the line, Stuart Murdoch took over. What was before a collective appears now to be Stuart’s project, and what the band lost in idealism it has most certainly gained in ingenuity. The result: Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a stunning collection of unpredictability that has to stand among the best pop albums of 2003.

The overriding theme on Waitress can be summed up in a line from “Roy Walker”, ironically the only song that doesn’t feature Murdoch front and center. Stevie Jackson sings, "Like a fresh manifestation of an old phenomenon / A breeze whips through the trees.” DCW features the unlikely instrumentation of Mariachi horns, kettle drums, even a ping-pong ball. There are songs about racy malfeasance in the workplace, Mike Piazza’s sexual preference, and the alleviatory powers of Thin Lizzy. Trevor Horn, the man responsible for “Video Killed the Radio Star”, produced the album (and did a damn fine job, it must be noted).

Yet for all the change, DCW is unmistakably Belle & Sebastian. Murdoch’s gentle voice – the aural equivalent to a John Keats poem – still exudes that perfect blend of sophistication and sensitivity on songs like the live favorite “Lord Anthony” and “If She Wants Me”, which features a catchy guitar line somewhere between jangle-pop and a wa-wa pedal and an overwhelming chorus that speaks to the inherent conflict in every idealist: “If I could do just one near-perfect thing I’d be happy / They’d write it on my grave or when they scattered my ashes / On second thoughts I’d rather hang about and be there with my best friend / If she wants me.”

There are numerous glimpses of lyrical excellence on DCW. The first verse of “Asleep on a Sunbeam” featuring Sarah Martin on vocals: “When the half light makes for a clearer view / Sleep a little more if you want to…Lying here asleep on a sunbeam / I wonder if you realize you fascinate me so. “Wrapped Up In Books” features the witty couplet: “I wish I had two paths that I could follow / I’d write the ending without any sorrow.”, a desire echoed on the reverb-heavy conclusion “Stay Loose” (“I’m going to need two lives / To follow the paths I’ve been taking.”).

While “Stay Loose” is by far the biggest departure on the record (an ’80s soft-rock homage?) and may point to the band’s future sound, three other songs aptly encapsulate Belle & Sebastian’s revamped and rediscovered magic. The opener “Step Into My Office, Baby” features Murdoch cramming as many sexual innuendos he can into four minutes in a completely over-the-top performance. Horn’s orchestral arrangements sound like something out of Chicago and Richard Colburn’s drumming, which was rarely accentuated on past records, supplies the necessary amount of libido to make the song work.

“If You Find Yourself Caught In Love” is also a treat, if only for its subversive attack on British and American politics. The song starts like some lost Motown classic, with Stuart proclaiming “If you find yourself caught in love / Say a prayer to the man above”, but quickly and shockingly turns into political commentary: “If you’re going off to war then I wish you well / but don’t be sore if I cheer the other team / Cuz killing people’s not my scene / I prefer to give the inhabitants a say / before you blow their town away.”. It all comes off without a hitch and conjures up the subtle political skews on If You’re Feeling Sinister The song is so catchy, the message is easy to miss on first listen, but anyone with issues on the War on Terrorism should get a huge kick out of it.

The masterpiece here, however, is “I’m a Cuckoo”, by far DCW’s most personal piece and my favorite Belle and Sebastian song yet. Stuart employs the melody to Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” to put a happy face on his broken heart while he lets loose an arrhythmic love letter to the girl who wouldn’t stay. His untempered rant reads like the ultimate diary entry – fitting since Stuart is known for his online diary – without the dippy clichés. The frenetic pace of his delivery captures the way love strives to overspill, overflow our corporal form, tripping over itself to get out and connect with the subject of our affection. Meanwhile, the gentrified riffs from Thin Lizzy counter with a knowing optimism, that these feelings eventually subside and happiness could literally be right around the corner. A joyous song for the lovelorn soul in all of us.

It’s this underlying optimism that characterizes Dear Catastrophe Waitress above all else and what makes each repeated listen that much more fun. It’s almost as if Stuart and Co. woke up, looked around at their improbable fame and said, “You know what? Life is Good.” Not a bad M.O., if you ask me.

By Otis Hart

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