It took four years, but it looks like Belle and the boy Sebastian are finally back on track. Not since their third record, The Boy With the Arab Strap, have Stuart Murdoch and Co. released a consistently great full-length record. Sure, there have been moments of genius on their recent singles and 2000’s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant — “There’s Too Much Love” was perhaps their most upbeat, damn fun song to date — but the filler and inconsistencies were glaring.
The problem was that Murdoch — consistent with the Belle and Sebastian’s democratic approach to being a band — was giving the others too much rein. There, I said it. Isobelle Campbell’s twee (the token Belle and Sebastian adjective, and for good reason) voice really just got annoying after one song; Stevie Jackson couldn’t sing, really; and Stuart David is better off as Looper now, as his songs, although strong, were a complete diversion from what the band was about. What fans wanted, and got on earlier records Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister, was lush orchestration and melody overseen by Murdoch’s hushed vocals and ingenious lyrical parables.
Thankfully on their fifth proper record, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the rest of the band is vocally placed in the background where they belong. The only song featuring Jackson’s vocals, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” is the lead track and is more fun than taxing. The vocal interplay between Murdoch and Jackson drives the narrative back-and-forth. The title track has the full eight-piece band in perfect form, incorporating strings, horns, the classic snare drum beat from “Dirty Dream #2,” and, as the title suggests, that idiosyncratic B&S brand of tongue-in-cheek empathy in its lyrics.
Highlights include “Piazza, New York Catcher,” a lamentation of an affair set against a baseball season. “San Francisco’s calling us, the Giants and Mets will play / Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?” asks Murdoch over a simple acoustic riff; this is his strongest confessional since Sinister‘s “Get Me Away from Here, I’m Dying” or Tigermilk‘s “The State I Am In.”
“Asleep on a Sunbeam” delivers more of the aforementioned Murdoch vocal interplay, but this time with cellist/violinist Sarah Martin, who sang on a few tracks on Fold Your Hands Child and who in fact holds up quite well. You can envision Stuart goose-stepping around the studio to “I’m a Cuckoo,” the album’s up-tempo centerpiece. And they’ve finally given a proper home to their consistent live favorite “Lord Anthony.” Most compelling is “Stay Loose” the album’s closer, a six-minute plus new wave cum kraut rocker with tweaked vocals and wet with organ.
Aside from this, throughout the record, elements of the band’s songwriting seem to have shifted back to what has previously worked. This is not to say they have regressed — the record is distinctive from previous work with a ’70s flare, most likely a result of working with Buggles / Frankie Goes to Hollywood producer Toby Horn. With Waitress the tracks are more consistent than the rather schizophrenic Fold Your Hands Child, and with less instrumental and film sample filler than their soundtrack to half of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. Several releases later, you finally have a B&S song in your head, and you’ll actually like it again.