Scottish Chamber Pop group Belle and Sebastian, led by the ambitious Stuart Murdoch, are no strangers to bringing new elements to their sound. Much like Bob Dylan trading in his acoustic guitar, and taking his turn at going electric in ’65, Belle and Sebastian released the critically-acclaimed Tony Hoffer-Produced The Life Pursuit in 2006, which gave the band the large-scale production they’ve always longed for, alienating many first generation fans of B&S’s earlier brand of bedroom folk. The followup album, Write About Love continued on this higher production trend, but failed to yield the same critical success as Pursuit.
For their 9th Studio release, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, Belle and Sebastian turn to producer Ben H. Allen III, who’s production credits include the likes of Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Washed Out, and Cee-lo Green. Like the title suggests, many tracks on GIPWTD are heavily influenced by retro Euro-dance music. Lets be fair, electronic drum tracks and synth lines on a Belle and Sebastian record may seem hard to swallow. My initial reaction was less than forgiving. “B&S have hit their mid-life crisis, so now they’re cashing in on the trash pop EDM trends of modern radio” I told myself. But as the album continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that B&S are exploring new musical territory. The dance influenced tracks, scattered throughout the record, maintain a fun retro atmosphere, like a trip back to an early 80’s prom, paying homage to acts like Pet Shop Boys and New Order. Ultimately, GIPWTD, for all it’s exploration, stays true to act we’ve known for years.
The album opens strong with “Nobody’s Empire”, written about Stuart Murdoch’s chronic fatigue syndrome, and stands as one of Murdoch’s most revealing songs to date. A slickly produced tune infused with full Spector-like production. Belle and Sebastian have always carried a keen eye for track placement, especially with album openers, and “Nobody’s Empire” holds fast.
The First single from GIPWTD, “The Party Line”, Introduces vintage disco and euro-pop sound into a song that could’ve easily been recorded in any style of music that aspires to be forgotten. It’s not a show-stopper in any sense, and it isn’t necessarily terrible. I could easily see this placed in upcoming film soundtracks or commercials.
The stand-up bass infused jazz number “Everlasting Muse” is one of the more bizarre songs on the record, with a strange waltzing march chorus. The result is a stand out track you can’t help but tap your feet to. Even when they’re not trying to make a dance song, Belle and Sebastian know pop music, and still know how to write a catchy number.
I’ve never been much of a fan of guitarist Stevie Jackson’s songs on B&S’s previous works, but his contribution “Perfect Couples” easily stands as one of the finest points of the record. The song highlights the black humor that B&S’s has always been good with, while giving a modern commentary on young married couples falling apart. All of that on top of a very funky groove reminiscent of The Cardigans’ First Band on the Moon.
As far as album hiccups go, two tracks in particular stand out: “Ever Had a Little Faith?” and “Play for Today”. Stuart Murdoch does go back to his roots on “Ever Had a Little Faith?”. Production wise, this song would easily fit on the “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” EP from 1999. “Play for Today”, running in at 7’33”, is Belle and Sebastian’s longest track to date. It brings back the euro-dance flavors from earlier in the record, but slowly stutters into redundancy until it’s almost merciful end.
Now, the best has definitely been saved for last, as “The Book of You” is one hell of a standout song. The classical chamber pop sound of Bell and Sebastian is layered with modern experimental electronics. Ben Allen’s signature production shines through well on this one. Lyrically, “The Book of You” is a simple love song, but is overshadowed by the experimentation in production, and better for it. Stevie Jackson’s seemingly out of the blue guitar solo works perfectly, sounding as if he were sampling a Stooges record, bringing the song into a sonic whirlwind of fading fuzz.
Stuart Murdoch continues to release consistently good work, and by good, I mean above average, but nothing exceptional. If there’s anything to take away from this record, it’s that Belle and Sebastian still have much more ground to cover in their career. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a high point or a very memorable album, simply another chapter of sound in the book of Belle and Sebastian.
Standout tracks – Nobody’s Empire, Everlasting Muse, Perfect Couples, The Book of You
– Justin A