Belle and Sebastian
"I'm Waking Up To Us"
Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch once seemed to be an omniscient being who saw into the minds and lives of the melancholy or the bisexual, the bored middle class or the pampered high class, the pretentious or the sensitive and Judy who dreamed about horses. He narrated their not-really-that-tragic-but-touching stories in prose that was distinctly European in its viewpoint and in poetry that was as coy, sweet, and distinctive as his voice.
The new Belle and Sebastian single, I'm Waking Up To Us, is completely lacking in any area that once made Belle and
Sebastian great. It's a sixth-generation copy. It's the sound of a band forgetting who they are... slipping into mediocrity and self-parody. It's a run-of-the-mill song. I'm Waking Up to Us has too many lyrics, none of which are interesting. Rather, it's a straightforward chronicle of an incongruous relationship that liberally employs the words "I", "you", "she", "me"... just like a NORMAL SONGWRITER..
And just as his songwriting has lost its coyness and charm, so has his voice which sounds on the verge of breaking into a sob. To the rest of the band's credit, they.. um.. they play instruments. Belle and Sebastian once transcended sixties retro kitch and made beautiful music. I'm Waking Up is just kitch. I Love My Car is a throwaway, as you might be able to tell by the title. However, it's a throwaway with creative music (hints of jazz?!) and a clever Beach Boys reference.
Finally, Marx And Engels actually sounds like a Belle and Sebastian song. The tune is great.. the instruments
are gorgeous... It has a surprisingly beautiful backing vocal courtesy of Isobelle Campbell... WHY WASN'T THIS THE A-SIDE?? This release is disconcerting. Many critics
attributed Belle and Sebastian's decline to the increased creative control of Isobelle Campbell and Stevie Jackson. However, Stuart seems to be one dragging his heels on this one. I'm Waking Up To Us has a lyric that says "I haven't changed, how could I? I'm pretty much the same person"...
Maybe Maestro Murdoch is the same person he used to be, but he sure isn't the same songwriter.
*review by james equator
Rockin' the Suburbs
Ben Folds Five folded, but Folds holds his own.
Ben Folds Five were something completely unique in the world of pop music: a guitarless rock band who effortlessly fused piano pop stylings with indie rock attitude topped with clever lyrics and a hint of jazz. They broke
up. Oh well. So much for that. Their frontman and primary songwriter, Ben Folds, has recorded a solo album called Rockin' the Suburbs.
Normally, this sort of news wouldn't be a big deal. For the BFF fan in me, the initial thought of Ben Folds' piano chords and bittersweet story songs without the rhythm section of Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge is a little disconcerting. Jesse and Sledge are both really unique in their individual styles and were just as vital to the identity of the music as Ben Folds was. While I don't want to rate Ben's new album in light of his old band, it's difficult not to notice the absence of distorted, jazzy bass playing.
However, the reason that the new album IS a big deal is the SONGS. WOW, they're good. Soaring melodies, wonderful lyrics, lots of characters (i can't imagine a Ben Folds record without lots of songs about other people), great harmonies... Ben Folds Five fans who loved their pure-pop songs like "Philosophy", "Best Imitation of Myself", and "don't change your plans for me" will have a lot to dig into here. Songs like "Gone" and "Annie Waits"
carry a bitter sentiment with a bouyant, infectious mood that makes it difficult not to bob your head and sing along. In other songs, such as "Fred Jones Part II" and "Carrying Cathy", the quiet tragedy of the lyrics is
echoed in slower, more delicate arrangements.
That's not to say that this album is a big frown-fest. The title track is an absolutely on-the-mark parody of crap-metal bands like Limp Bizkit and Korn (what happened to them??) that features Ben rapping "yall don't know what it's like.. being male middle class and white" in his best Fred Durst imitation. On a decidedly different note, "The Luckiest" closes the album with lovestruck joy and contentment.
To his credit, Folds played almost all the instruments on Suburbs including piano, bass, drums, and guitar. Despite my earlier nitpicking, the tracks really do sound great. He's a great musician and his ability to make
a well-arranged rock song all by himself is commendable. I just miss the distorted, jazzy bass... That's all....
Rocking The Suburbs isn't a classic, but it's a great pop/rock album from start to finish. There's not a song that's not worth listening to and the vast majority of them are better than good. I'd venture to call them "wonderful". It will be rocking my stereo for awhile.
Side Note: if you heard the title track on the radio and were put off by the crunchy guitar riff, don't let that fool you. That's the only thing on the album that remotely sounds like that.
*review by james equator
When Your Heartstrings Break
I picked this one up a few weeks ago at the Antiquarium, a very cool bookstore/used record mecca/art gallery. Back in high school, this was the place for all of us rebels (I use that term loosely, and if you knew me, you'd know why) to hang out. You could smoke, dig through piles of LPs to find that one Mudhoney single you didn't have, and drink coffee to your heart's content.
Ah... the joys of high school.
I can imagine that the boys in Beulah probably hung out in a place very similar to this back in high school. But I don't think they ever left. They just grew up there, growing tired of Mudhoney and moving on to the Beatles and Phil Spector. Then, one day, they heard "Pet Sounds" and were convinced that it was the work of God.
I imagine the boys in Beulah as the ones who just couldn't identify with the passionate, yet nonsensical lyrics of Mr. Cobain, and instead curled up under the sheets, headphones pressed into their bowlcuts, while "In My Room" played out its golden harmonies. While other kids were forming bands in their garage, the Beulah crew were holing themselves up in their room with a 4-track, eschewing the normal high school pursuit of "getting some."
That's why "When Your Heartstrings Break" is such candy for the ears. The melodies are hummable, you find yourself playing the air drums or singing along with the backing harmonies, and you get a little tear in your eye at the string arrangements that peeks up every once in awhile. Over 20 people played on this album, bringing instruments like the harp and tabla, as well as enough violins and cellos to start their own orchestra to the studio.
This record is chock full of flourishes. Check out the baroque movements and Sid and Marty Croft-esque opening of "If We Can Land A Man On The Moon, Surely I Can Win Your Heart" (now THAT's a song title). "Emma Blowgun's Last Stand" starts off with a little Indian tabla vibe that morphs into a love-in made up of fuzzy keyboards and strings a la Stereolab (or maybe a twee version of Stereolab). But unfortunately, the best parts of this album are the flourishes. Take those away, and you're left with not much else. It's kind of like swathing a cake in a couple inches of chocolate frosting. You wade through only to discover the frosting was the best part.
Still, though... it's hard to ignore music this sweet and charming. There's no doubt as to the skills these guys possess. They know how to write pop hooks and vocal harmonies, and they do it with a measure of lo-fi charm. But unfortunately, I don't think that's enough to carry this album to the pop heights that it earnestly seeks to achieve. It's a good record to work to, but as for active listening, I'll probably end up going elsewhere for my pop needs.
*review by jason morehead, for opus [www.opuszine.com]