Music Reviews
Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress

(Rough Trade) Buy it from Insound Rating - 6/10

I was really hoping to like this more than I do, for a multitude of reasons: firstly, I've long been a fan of B&S, enduring barely-stifled guffaws and occasional howls of derision from various indie snobs for my enthusiasm; secondly, bands who aren't afraid to fly in the face of ridicule, and who wilfully follow their convictions through, are the bands who genuinely command (and deserve) an adulatory audience - Radiohead, The Smiths, etc - the litmus test of an important band is that at least half the people who love music would eagerly take a bullet for the drummer, whilst the remainder would cheerfully garrotte the lot of them if they thought they could get away with it. Lastly, I really can't be bothered to read any impassioned 12-page theses from said obsessives about how Belle and Sebastian's new record is actually their best one yet, complete with graphic descriptions detailing what a (insert overly harsh expletive here) I am for not understanding this.

Rough Trade are hoping that Dear Catastrophe Waitress will 'propel (B&S) beyond the realms of their ardent fan-base'. To this end, they've employed Trevor Horn to polish their sound, with mixed results: although Trev gives Stuart Murdoch's songs a freshness and clarity that is entirely complimentary, the decision to unleash a flurry of TV melodrama string arrangements or flashy showbiz brass on half the songs leads to results that range from tolerable over-egging at best and annoying inanity at worst (I'm a Cuckoo's cabaret horn section is truly, arse-clenchingly bad). Whilst most bands who take the decision to go full-on commercial pop tend to look towards the West Coast (and there's plenty of that on here), few consciously look towards the glam stomp of classic oldie radio mainstays like Mud and Pilot, but Belle and Sebastian choose to explore its vaguely embarrassing, dad-pleasing merits here. Come Into My Office, Baby is a guilty pleasure if you can ignore the shameful innuendos and if you always secretly quite liked ELO anyway; the enjoyable drive-time jolliness of I'm a Cuckoo was created to accompany district managers as they travel down the M1 to Leicester, and the Supertramp-influenced Roy Walker is such awful, awful crap that they should all be shot for recording it (ok, maybe that's harsh...200 hours of community service at least, though, surely).

The case for the defence isn't a straightforward one, but the West Coast strum of If She Wants Me is as good as anything they've released, and the title track is enjoyable stuff, despite featuring the kind of string crescendos usually reserved for sound-tracking ski chase scenes. The folk shanty Piazza, New York Catcher subtly works its charm over time too, and the glorious If You Find Yourself Caught in Love is a perfect example of what can happen when the band's aspirations gel convincingly. As for the rest? Well, there's a clutch of songs that are pleasant rehashes of the B&S formula without being overly memorable (Asleep on a Sunbeam; the schoolyard retread of Lord Anthony). Wrapped Up in Books convinces with a strong sense of melody that is all the more noticeable in its surroundings, despite its reliance on the formulaic, and if you're a beehive-sporting kitsch-monger, you'll undoubtedly spend many happy hours doing ridiculous 'diving' dances to the inane monstrosity (and Geno rip-off) that is You Don't Send Me. Trouble is, to pull this kind of thing off well, you need overwhelming melodies as much as crisp production, and although B&S are commendably looking beyond their initial blueprint, there are bands who are doing this showy West Coast thing a lot better; the step into pure pop melody as opposed to the sparser, wistful autumnal strumming of before cannot leave behind their sound fully, nor embrace their new aspirations wholly. The fusion convinces only occasionally, and the style doesn't find the hooks strong enough, often enough to negate doubts about their dubious love of overblown AOR. The best moments of Dear Catastrophe Waitress are markedly great, and really deserve better company, but, considering the whole selection, the phrase 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' has never felt more apt. Dog turds/letterbombs/stinging poetry to the usual address, please.