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November 6, 2003

Belle & Sebastian: awkward first kiss leaves much to be desired

I think we all knew that the crisis of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant was coming. Belle & Sebastian was supposed to be more of a collective than a band, more of a phenomenon than a career. The miasma of Fold Your Hands had an air of uncomfortable confusion about it, like being at a party with a couple that's on the verge of breaking up—lots of uneasy passages where this unit that seemed so familiar is spreading out among the attendees and hustling the unattached into corners. Is Isobel actually flirting with us? I mean she's pretty and all, but neither of us seem ready for this.

After the weird last gasp of the Storytelling soundtrack, Isobel Campbell and Stuart David have ditched the band for solo projects, and newly-ascendant Stuart Murdoch (finally) brought in former Yes and Tatu producer Trevor Horn to get his bachelor pad in order.

Thanks to the album's focus on him and Horn's pop confidence, Murdoch's music sounds more confident than it's been since If You're Feeling Sinister. Without David's clammy voice and Campbell's impossibly fey presence, Murdoch's gorgeous alto fills out the spaces in Horn's decadent, luxurious production. "If She Wants Me" is the most successful departure for Murdoch, in which he finds that his lilting Scottish falsetto is fewer steps from soul falsetto than he thought.

Murdoch is clearly enjoying himself more than he has in years, which isn't always a good thing; the glossy, winking double-entendre of "Step Into My Office, Baby" starts to grate after the music turns out to be single-entendre pop. Likewise, when he sings in the title track, with regards to said waitress, "He hit you with a full can of coke/it's no joke/your face is bleeding," and sticks in a Looney Toons sound effect after "joke," it's hard to tell whether he's just being ironic or having fun making us uncomfortable.

That's the rub to David and Campbell's departure—B&S's twee irony fills in the void sometimes, and the album sometimes dies on the vine lyrically the way Fold Your Hands died musically. Murdoch hasn't forgotten how pop irony can bring weight—a song that may or may not be about having an affair with an ambiguously gay New York Met called "Piazza, New York Catcher" is actually the most moving song on the album—but he still turns the cute up to 11 too many times. Dear Catastrophe Waitress is no less transitional than Fold Your Hands, but the kind of transitional that opens up rather than shuts down. It's probably worth it alone for "If She Wants Me" and "Piazza, New York Catcher," two of B&S's best songs, but is at least worth a listen if you've been feeling weirded out by the group since their last awkward come-on.