People lucky enough to become enraptured with the music of Belle &
Sebastian can usually point to a particular song that first seized
their hearts and opened their minds to this Scottish band. In my
case, it was a sad little song about a real person many in the music
business have known: "Seymour Stein."
For those too young to know or care, Seymour Stein was the founder of
Sire Records, the man who signed The Ramones, Talking Heads, and
ultimately, Madonna. Stein, like his Sire label, was a kind of bridge
between the old-school music-business labels and the developing indy
and club scene. He was both a wheeler-dealer and a man with musical
taste obviously superior to that of most of his peers.
However, in the song "Seymour Stein," a track from the 1998 Belle &
Sebastian album The Boy with the Arab Strap, our narrator
feels forlorn and rejected. Apparently, a meeting was supposed to
take place with the peripatetic Stein. Through his tears, the
narrator tells of "Promises of fame, promises of fortune/ L.A. to New
York, San Francisco back to Boston...." The singer and Stein never
connect: "Seymour Stein, sorry I missed you/ Have a nice flight home/
It's a good day for flying."
Like so many of Belle & Sebastian's tantalizing, resonant, and
riveting songs, "Seymour Stein" is rich with dualities that run much
deeper than missing dinner with the record man. It's about ambition
versus integrity, uncertainty of travel versus the comfort of home,
about questioning the sacrifices required for success versus the
pride of craftsmanship, the ever-changing buzz of the New World
versus the glacial solidity of old Europe. "Has he ever seen Dundee?"
the singer wonders.
Yet "Seymour Stein" is also so spare and so sad that you wonder if
the narrator is kidding, whether it's a send-up of all the
all-too-earnest depresso-pop of bands like The Smiths, which had to
have been a formative influence on Belle & Sebastian. However lovely,
Belle & Sebastian songs earlier were often performed with such a
delicate twinkle that they made the hushed sound of fellow Scotsman
Donovan, '60s folk-rock troubadour, seem as unglued as Motörhead.
Even if they recognized that the fragile beauty of some previous
recordings made them sound a mite too precious for their own good,
the musical energy and vitality of the new Belle & Sebastian album,
Dear Catastrophe Waitress, comes on shockingly pumped up. And
that's a good thing. B&S singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch turns
out the most consistent, alluring and satisfying collection of songs
he's ever captured under one umbrella. The most mordantly witty
songwriter this side (or rather, that side) of Steely Dan's Fagen and
Becker thrives in the intensified spotlight. Like Michael Stipe when
he stopped mumbling and started performing, Murdoch seems ready for
his close-up, and his sophisticated bandmates and Trevor Horn's
unlikely production never let him down.
R&B horns and soul guitar riffs. Orchestral swells with strings that
swing. Horn, maestro of the British 1980s age of excess, the studio
wiz who built his Mall of Sound behind the likes of Frankie Goes to
Hollywood, The Buggles and Yes, is finally matched with songs as deep
and broad as his sonic imagination. Horn turns in the best work of
his career, giving DCW a collection of sounds so potent and
invigorating that the album may be Belle & Sebastian's
I mean, what are those reedy woodwinds parading through "Step Into My
Office, Baby," a cavalry of oboes? And is this galloping tale of a
lecherous boss as simple and leering as it appears to be on first
listen, or does the obnoxious seduction take place only in the mind
of a character otherwise too timid to be so directly vulgar?
"I'm a Cuckoo" is leavened by the horns of Horn, the smartly lovelorn
postcard lyrics balanced by bouncy soul brass, an adorable and
completely delightful mix of Blood, Sweat and Tears and early Culture
Club. (If Boy George had material this good, he'd still be a star
rather than just trying to play one on stage.) "If She Wants Me" has
Willie Mitchell-sounding soul guitar riffs and churchy organ, with
Murdoch pulling off the most appropriate quiver-deep, mounting-high
falsetto since Smokey and the Miracles were knocking out hits.
"You Don't Send Me" is a trip back to a different kind of 1960s, a
decade whose parameters are in this affectionate not-love song
defined by the Petula Clark songbook and the Vogues' "Five O'Clock
World," history's only top-40 doo-wop protest song.
There's so much to love, but there's no more quintessential new B&S
song than "Piazza, New York Catcher." Apparently Murdoch has
developed a most unlikely fascination with baseball. Without getting
too term-paperish, this energetic amplified folk-pop song (no bridge
or other musical variation) is a clinic in finely nuanced lyric
writing, showing a level of skill Paul Simon displayed at his early
The singer's object keeps changing: In the first verse, he tries to
woo a "Miss Private" into sailing around the world. Soon, the scene
shifts to Pac Bell Park in San Francisco where: "The Giants and Mets
will play/ Piazza New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?"
The audacious rhyme is drawn from last summer's tabloid sports
gossip, a whisper that had grown so loud that New York Mets catcher
Mike Piazza, in real life, felt it necessary to publicly state his
heterosexuality. Which is really beside the point here.
Murdoch asks the question, sounding part-curious, part-hopeful, but
in no way judgmental. (I have no idea what Stuart's proclivities are,
and I don't care. His well developed "queer eye," as you might call
it, may be just another layer of his artistry). Because "Piazza New
York Catcher" really isn't about Mike Piazza, it's about choices.
It's the tension between Miss "Private" and Mr. Public, embodied by
an All-Star baseball player drawn into an unwelcome controversy.
Throughout the song, and by the deftest deflection, Murdoch explores,
more richly, the kind of dualities he did in "Seymour Stein":
Work/play, sport/business, gay/straight, East Coast/West Coast,
religion/spirituality, drunk/sober... you know, the whole gestalt.
What really sends me is a particular bit of word play: Moping about
San Francisco, the vocalist says, "The statue's crying and well he
may." It sounds like he's singing "Willie Mays." Point of detail:
There is a statue of Willie Mays near the entrance to the ballpark.
On "If She Wants Me," the singer expresses a consuming wish: "If I
could do just one near-perfect thing I'd be happy." Belle &
Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress is that one near perfect