Belle & Sebastian's brief musical contribution to Todd Solondz's trivial and unsurprising third film, "Storytelling," is either a sad tale about musicians unable to surpass their creative limitations, or further evidence of the graceless stumble into mediocrity in which Solondz is presently engaged. But as the filmmaker's failures are fodder for an entirely different (and much longer) article, it's best to put the blame on the band for this tired, uninspired collection of music and songs.
Solondz commissioned the Scottish band to write and perform original songs and incidental score for one part of his film (the other half being assigned to Nathan Larson). As it turns out, major changes in the script and structure of the film necessitated the removal of much of this music, and Belle & Sebastian were left with a half-hour of scrapped material. The experience was, apparently, a disillusioning ordeal for the band, whose film-scoring dreams were dashed by Solondz's inability to get his shit together.
The release of this soundtrack, months after the film sputtered and died in theaters, would be a clever revenge for the band if it weren't filled with such obvious and unchallenging music. It's not bad music; it is exactly the type of score one would expect Belle & Sebastian to compose, employing the tried-and-true B&S equation of (piano + acoustic guitar + subtle strings = pretty) from which they've squeezed nearly all of their material. It's worked fine for them, and there are moments of quiet brilliance scattered throughout their catalogue. But recognizing the differences in scoring and conventional pop would have served them well; instead we're presented with a disc that sounds like a diluted version of previous Belle & Sebastian releases.
Much of the instrumental material explores one repeating theme, a quietly plucked melody that, like lots of the band's softer material, meanders a bit, flirts with some minor notes, and fades into a calm decay. The theme is innocuous and pleasant to listen to, and easily forgettable. The album picks up when the band tries things unorthodox, particularly on "Consuelo Leaving," which blends the band's melodramatic tendencies with a touch of Latin influence.
Further, the six actual songs on this record aren't worth all the padding. "Black and White Unite" and "Storytelling" call to mind the mistakes of the band's last full-length, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant: melodies that seem picked from the If You're Feeling Sinister throwaway pile, and less-than-enthusiastic vocal deliveries. And "Big John Shaft," though stronger, falters lyrically ("I'll make another movie, the same one as the year before, take a tired idea, put it in the hands of Hollywood"). A band so frustrated with the process of film work could have come up with more biting a commentary than that.
On the other hand, "Wandering Alone" revisits the Latin influence from "Consuelo Leaving," and is the one song on the disc that hints at musical growth. Despite the stagnancy of this record, the good news is that I'm Waking Up to Us, Belle & Sebastian's last EP and the best thing they've recorded since "The Boy With the Arab Strap," was made after this Storytelling debacle, and goes a long way in reassuring us that all is not lost. Blame it on the band, or blame it on the film, but either way, Storytelling is a big misstep that one should most likely disregard as easily and quickly as Solondz did. Maybe he was right all along.