Belles Lettres

by Lois Maffeo

HOW PAINFUL WAS IT when Dick, the sad sack indie nerd in High Fidelity, had to turn and face his record shop co-worker and speak his love for Belle & Sebastian? Even though I am not a striped-shirt wearing, minutiae-arguing, indie completist, I too dig Belle & Sebastian. I don't linger on the band's internet list or jet over to England for their mini-festivals; yet I share with the fictional Dick and all his real-life counterparts that stricken, yet self-satisfied reaction when I think of the Scottish band's clever and ornate pop music.

On Belle & Sebastian's new album, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, Stuart Murdoch is still penning fine lyrics, but he has settled into a writing stage that is less decorative and arch. Murdoch has begun to write songs that face the slippery topics of his own insincerity and ennui. The album's boldest moment comes when Murdoch takes on a female identity in " The Chalet Lines" to detail the tragic aftermath of a workplace rape. There will no doubt be some who feel that this song crosses a political boundary, but with its bleak detail and somber musical setting, " The Chalet Lines" is closer to a hardscrabble British realist film like A Taste of Honey than a polemic on sexual assault.

On Fold Your Hands Child, Murdoch's lyrical contributions utilize the pop orchestrations of '60s " beautiful music." Belle & Sebastian create an oddly soothing sonic palette that relies on strings, piano and a diverse array of organs that range from a vamping Farfisa to a tweaked-out electric harpsichord. Barely skirting pastiche, band members Isobel Campbell and Stevie Jackson even go so far as mimicking the unintentionally campy duets of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra. On "Beyond the Sunrise" Jackson intones "Joseph was travelling with a heavy load," to which Campbell replies (in a voice, it must be admitted, that sounds more like Claudine Longet than Nancy Sinatra) "Sir, come to me and I will keep you warm."

By combining the shimmer of 60's soundtrack music with the same decade's cheeky pop kitsch, Belle & Sebastian have finally created musical arrangements that catch up to Murdoch's seemingly limitless lyrical acumen. As the CD flows forth with a holistic confidence oozing from every note and word, the band seems to call for new appraisal. And they certainly deserve it.

Sugar Rubs Me Raw

by Julianne Shepherd

NORMAL PHOTOGRAPHS of Belle & Sebastian do not exist. I mean the kind of photograph where people are imperfectly posed and smiling at the camera, or playing around with the bunny ear fingers, or flipping it off. You know, the kind of photograph where people are just, well, living.

The reason none of these photographs exist is Belle & Sebastian do not take them. Their photos are always a posed, gelatin-lens, premeditated artsy hipness complete with clover and very carefully softened edges. Most importantly, they are Sooo. Sweet. Isobel Campbell and Stuart Murdoch, the delicate flowers of the group, are attractive in this very poignant way, where you look at them and you just want to cry because they are soooo untouchable.

Now replace the word "photographs" in the above paragraphs with " albums," and you get the gist of the entire company of Belle and Sebastian releases, including their latest little romp, the cloyingly titled Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.

Every inch of this record reeks of a youthful pretension that, at first glance, is sort of cute in its wide-eyed naivete. The coniferous flutes and Campbell's strawberry icing vocals on " Waiting for the Moon to Rise," the fur-muffled cowbell and Chevy Nova-inspired organs on "The Wrong Girl," and the way the shaker and strings interplay on "I Fought In a War" all convey the same smudged pastel lines of a Keene painting. But when you look at a Keene painting for long enough, nuances that hadn't affected you before start to grate on your nerves. On Fold Your Hands Child, those nuances are embodied by the tinny handclaps on "Women's Realm;" how you can hear Campbell's tongue clicking against the roof of her mouth on the end of "Family Tree;" the way the impassioned vocals on "The Chalet Lines" sound like a Saturday Night Live cast member doing a parody of the musical Oliver! It starts to feel like the slow, jittery tooth-ache you get from eating too much candy.

It's not that I'm adverse to either pretense or sugar pop; I hold artists like Magnetic Fields, Francoise Hardy, and Stereolab in high esteem. It's just that, in the musical scope of Belle & Sebastian, after they churn their songs through the sugar machine, the presumptuous affectation is really all that's left. They just keep adding ingredients to produce a musical solution that's way too saturated. The melodramatic presentational puffery of Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant is posed like Belle & Sebastian's self-photographs: so thoughtful, so sweet. After awhile, you're going to need to lie down and take a half bottle of Tums.