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Belle and Sebastian - Storytelling

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Artist: Belle and Sebastian

Album: Storytelling

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 18, 2002

First off, I believe it is delicate business approaching any Belle and Sebastian album. A rare entity, the Glasgow-based band of varying size (there were eleven on stage when they played in New York last month) achieved first a small and fervent following only to more recently acquire mainstream appeal. Belle and Sebastian’s last full-length album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant debuted in the top twenty of the British charts, and subsequently earned the band an appearance on the BBC’s “Top of the Pops.” Belle and Sebastian’s entry into pop culture was perhaps best summed up by the record clerk in the movie High Fidelity, who upon wearing a shirt sporting the band’s name, is ruthlessly mocked for his appreciation of nerdy, twee pop. Ironically, the shirt was also emblematic of Belle and Sebastian’s ability to serve as an easily identifiable symbol.

Independent critics and past admirers of Belle and Sebastian did not approach Fold Your Hands nearly as enthusiastically as the commonality. It was met by some with fierce disdain and dismissal. Here in lies the dilemma: one wants to avoid the lemming-like tendency to engage in iconoclasm towards a band merely because they have enjoyed success and are no longer relatively unknown. On the other hand, Belle and Sebastian’s early work was excellent and perhaps set an unsustainable precedent, one they nevertheless have to be held up to. Storytelling enters into this fold.

All this said, Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling is a disappointment. It is not a bad album; just one that does not stand up to the band’s earlier work. Created as a soundtrack for director Todd Solondz’s eponymous movie, Storytelling comes in just under 35 minutes. Solondz, who also directed Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, has a penchant for making disturbing, often downright horrifying movies that address the banality and hedonism of suburban life. Welcome to the Dollhouse covered adolescent rape, while Happiness upped the ante by explicitly dealing with pedophilia. Done in the same confrontational vein, Storytelling the movie is divided into two parts, “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”. The first part of the movie offers Solondz’s take on a white college student’s sexual relationship with her black professor, while the second portrays a filmmaker’s documentary of a boorish high school student and his dysfunctional family.

In the liner notes to Storytelling, Stevie Jackson, the band’s guitarist and secondary vocalist, writes of the band’s work with Solondz that, “But to be honest this was no bad thing and working within the framework of a collaborative endeavor is incredibly satisfying even if the pleasure is sometimes garnished with the occasional disappointment.” Understatement, by my measurement, since only six minutes of Belle and Sebastian’s music was used in the final production of the film. One has to wonder why the band did not cut its losses, retool what it liked from the project in addition to writing some new songs, and postpone the release of their fifth full-length album.

Instead Storytelling was put to press, and in what can only be described as ridiculous obsequiousness, includes dialogue from the film, constituting five whole tracks. It is rare that dialogue on any movie soundtrack is welcome – after numerous plays it just gets too repetitive – it becomes fodder for ubiquitous posters adorning college dorm rooms. To hear dialogue titled “Conan, Early Letterman” and “Jersey’s Where It’s At” on a Belle and Sebastian album seems downright trite. If Todd Solondz wants to continue dwelling on New Jersey, late night talk shows, etc., I guess that is fine, but I have to question the pertinence of these cultural references to Belle and Sebastian. Furthermore, it seems to be testament that Belle and Sebastian, even though they were largely dismissed by the filmmaker in the end, were not confident enough in the music to let it stand on its own; it had to be tethered to the film for it to be understood.

The album opens with the instrumental “Fiction,” an airy, sweeping tune that serves as the thematic basis for “Freak,” “Night Walk,” and “Fiction (Reprise),” also instrumental pieces. The variations are slight, relying on a switch in key or the emphasis of another instrument. “Fuck This Shit,” in my opinion, is the one instrumental track that truly stands out. Utilizing a melancholy harmonica melody supplied by Jackson, the song possesses forward movement the other instrumentals lack. It builds up within the context of the album, and seems poised to spillover into the next track. Unfortunately it fails to, returning instead to the repetition of “Night Walk.” The other freestanding instrumental pieces are “Consuelo” and “Consuelo Leaving,” which are paired and are dedicated to the nanny character in the “Non-fiction” portion of the movie, played by the famous Hispanic actress Lupe Ontiveros (who according to some TV-special I saw has been repeatedly relegated to acting the role of nanny – how is that for some fucked up racist shit – apparently she wants to do Shakespeare). Although I cannot say I harbor a particular affinity for these songs, I give Belle and Sebastian credit for exploring new territory here. The songs have a Spanish-feel to them, and rely more on piano and horn versatility then the other myriad musical accoutrements the band brings to the table.

The first vocal track on the album is “Black and White Unite,” a rambling, gentle song that might as well come from the 1960s. Here Belle and Sebastian almost sound more like the Apples in Stereo, the Sixth Great Lake, or even the Ladybug Transistor, than themselves. These are bands that certainly have their own merits, but they are also bands that Belle and Sebastian would not have been readily compared to in the past. I’m not sure this is a good development either, since it would be difficult to put forth the convincing argument that there is a dearth of Beatlesque nature-pop. An interesting line appears in “Black and White Unite,” when Stuart Murdoch sings that “your record profits will buy you an island.” An anomaly to the rest of the song’s lyrics, which dwell on the film, it seems instead to represent a moment of self-reflection.

“Storytelling,” the title track, is more classic Belle and Sebastian. Incidentally, it is also the last song in which Isobel Campbell takes the vocal lead (Campbell, according to Jeepster’s website, left the band in an “amicable” fashion at the beginning of June). While the lyrics sound jerky and almost forced at times, they are catching and are propelled along by a running beat that the band has employed so successfully in the past. “Wandering Alone,” which Belle and Sebastian have been playing frequently on their recent tour, completely switches direction, returning to the Spanish-inspired Consuelo tracks. Jackson croons about his (or a movie character’s – the song feels out of place) “Senorita a heavenly sweet soul / That was put there to save and protect him.” A ballad of sorts, the song fails to grasp the listener beyond its initial uniqueness.

The final track on the album, “Big John Shaft,” is excellent and worthy of the praise the band has garnered in the past. According to the liner notes, it was written not for the plot of the movie, but for Robert Wisdom, the actor who plays the black college professor. Hauntingly, Murdoch writes a beautiful song that lyrically deals with the trap actors fall in when they get typecast. Hence the black actor miserably pronouncing “I won’t play another heavyweight / I won’t play another big John Shaft.” Given the freedom to examine something distinctly human as opposed to something cinematic, Belle and Sebastian do a wonderful job. They almost seem to be commiserating with Wisdom’s conundrum, and the introspection makes for a powerful song.

I hope that in the future, Belle and Sebastian do not attach themselves to any further film projects. They are far too original and have displayed a potent ability to write songs that clearly come from circumstances they have an intimate knowledge of – their audiences deserve this. Storytelling is not their story, and no matter their talent, they do not give the end impression of ownership.

By Andy Urban

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