Articles tagged with Belle & Sebastian

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Hopefully writing a better album than God Help the Girl
If online music journalism were like high school, then Pitchfork would be the prom queen: kind of a bitch, but we’d all sleep with her in an instant if given the chance. Pitchfork would be played by Jennifer Love Hewitt and the movie would go into slow-motion every time she walked into the room.

Yesterday, my Exclaim! news piece about Belle & Sebastian got cited by Pitchfork. OMG the prom queen talked to me! Should I confess my true love in a letter and then deliver it to her at a grad party after she breaks up with that jerk Mike Dexter?

On a related note, Belle & Sebastian is my favorite band. Here’s the song “Come Monday Night” from frontman Stuart Murdoch’s God Help the Girl project from last year. It’s sung by titular Girl Catherine Ireton, and is one of the album’s two songs that lives up to the glory of Murdoch’s previous work. (The other is the title track.)

MP3: “Come Monday Night”
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Any Murdoch is better than no Murdoch

God Help the Girl - Stills
Among a certain, bookish crowd of indie snobs, there is no band in the past twenty years better than Belle & Sebastian (full disclosure: I belong to this crowd). Backed by delicate chamber pop arrangements from an ever-changing cast of supporting musicians, Murdoch specializes in intimate character studies, usually involving religion or lust (or some combination of the two—see his signature tune, “The State I Am In”).

God Help the Girl, released in June of this year, is Murdoch’s first full-length endeavour outside of his usual group. It’s actually a soundtrack to a planned musical film about a reclusive girl named Eve who develops an eating disorder before seeking comfort in an array of supporting characters (each voiced by a different singer). As I discussed a few months ago, it’s an intriguing listen, but lacks the same personality that Murdoch has always achieved so effortlessly with Belle & Sebastian.

Stills is an five-song EP from the same project, and despite the occasional moment of brilliance, it suffers from many of the same problems that hamper the full-length. The shortcomings are mostly in the lyrics; too often, the songs feel like narrative vehicles, with blunt lyrics that sacrifice subtlety and poetry in favour of clarity. The Ireton-fronted “I’m in Love with the City” features a gorgeous scaling melody, but its tale of unrequited romance falls flat with clunky lines like “If he knew how I felt it would spoil any chance I had.”

Where the EP succeeds is in its arrangements, which vary between brazen cabaret pop and Latin-infused folk. The Murdoch-sung “He’s a Loving Kind of Boy” features vigorous acoustic strumming and mariachi trumpet solos, while “Baby’s Just Waiting” is a slinky piano ballad set against a bed of sweeping strings and purring woodwinds. Best of all is the title track, with Asya of Smoosh providing fragile, double-tracked vocals over a gentle arrangement that recalls “Fox in the Snow” (from B&S’s If You’re Feeling Sinister).

Hopefully, God Help the Girl is just a temporary diversion, something to occupy Murdoch until the next Belle & Sebastian album. Still anything from Murdoch is better than nothing, and with so little news coming out of the Belle & Sebastian camp these days, we should probably feel lucky to have a few more songs to help fill the void.

Stills is available now on iTunes.
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A story set to music (apparently)

Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch has always specialized in vivid character portraits. His songs depict social outcasts—Judy, Lisa, Antony—who shun religion, seeking comfort in medication, sexuality or music. But despite his knack for characterization, Murdoch’s songs have rarely been narrative; rather, they are fragments, full of rich detail but lacking structure or progression.

God Help the Girl changes that, slotting Murdoch’s songs into an album-long narrative. Theoretically, at least, since it isn’t always clear what the story’s actually about. The liner notes help to illuminate the main character, Eve, but don’t sufficiently explain how all of the tunes fit together, nor provide any insight into the album’s secondary characters. The characters are voiced by a variety of hired guns, and Murdoch himself plays the role of James, singing on two of the album’s 14 tracks. Backing instrumentation is provided by members of Belle & Sebastian, as well as a full orchestra.

The best moments on God Help the Girl are those that sound closest to typical Belle & Sebastian. The title track could have fit nicely on The Life Pursuit, and describes a character—Eve, the titular “Girl”—who is more or less interchangeable with Judy (from “Judy and the Dream of Horses,” as well as other songs). The song describes Eve’s descent into reclusive depression, but it’s propelled by a buoyant melody and plenty of witty lyrical jabs: “You have been warned I’m born to be contrary / Back when at school I wrote from right to left”.

Unfortunately, not all of God Help the Girl is able capture the same magic as the title track. The album is hampered by its vocalists, most of whom are unable to convey the fragility of their characters. Eve is voiced by newcomer Catherine Ireton, whose powerful performance isn’t quite fitting for her wounded character. Listening to her sing a song like “Act of the Apostle” (a recycled version of “Act of the Apostle II” from The Life Pursuit) is a bit like listening to Joss Stone‘s cover of “Fell in Love with a Girl”—sure, it’s an impressive performance, but why bother when the original songwriter does such a better job? For this reason, the best fit (apart from Murdoch himself) is Asya of the teenage trio Smoosh, whose gently lisping vocals make her perfect for the role of Eve’s friend Cassie; her contribution to the countrified waltz “I Just Want Your Jeans” is one of the collection’s highlights.

The album is also hampered by a few clunky lyrics that seem more like vehicles for the story than effective stand-alone songs. “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie” is clearly intended to be played during a nightclub scene, and it comes off as an over-literal play-by-play of events: “Shuffle to the left / I kick the boy behind / To make a little room / Boogie to the right.” The movie version of God Help the Girl is due to start shooting next year, so perhaps tunes such as this will work better in film.

Ultimately, God Help the Girl is a pleasant diversion for Belle & Sebastian fans, but the overall effect is similar to that of 2000′s Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant: a few moments of brilliance interspersed with disappointing experiments and awkward vocals. Hopefully the planned movie version doesn’t distract Murdoch too much from getting to work on the next B&S album.
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While we wait for a new B&S record

Belle and Sebastian are on what appears to be an indefinite hiatus, but frontman Stuart Murdoch is busying himself with a project called God Help the Girl. It’s a self-described “story set to music,” meaning it’s essentially a rock opera, but without any of the pomposity associated typically associated with the genre. A twee-pop opera? I never thought I’d live to see the day.

The project includes some reworkings of Belle & Sebastian songs (“Funny Little Frog” and “Act of the Apostle”), as well as original songs. The characters are voiced by several different singers, including Murdoch himself, Asya from Smoosh, and a couple of unknowns recruited in an internet talent search.

The lead character (the “Girl”) is sung by Catherine Ireton of the Go Away Birds, and its her vocals that feature on the album’s single “Come Monday Night.” It’s a pleasant chamber folk tune, and isn’t too much of a departure from Belle & Sebastian—it could have conceivably fit onto either Dear Catastrophe Waitress or The Life Pursuit. The lyrics and melody are pure Stuart Murdoch; the trouble is that Ireton’s vocals are a little too self-assured, and lack the poignant charm of Murdoch’s gentle lisp. Still, it’s a nice tune, and gives B&S fans something to do while waiting for the band to reconvene.

God Help the Girl is out June 23 via Matador. The “Come Monday Night” single will be released May 11.
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