In an effort to retain my sanity and interest in music, this blog will occasionally focus on albums I've been listening to not of the immediate moment. Starting now:
Belle and Sebastian, Dear Catastrophe Waitress - Why are Belle and Sebastian fans afraid of sunlight? Everything wrong with them can be summed up with two examples:
1) Over on pitchfork, Scott Plagenhoef has reviewed no less than four
seperate releases (here's the fourth review) from the fearsomely twee group. Each one hammers on the same themes with frightening repetition: once B&S were tiny, cultist and mysterious, playing shambolic live shows and refusing to engage with their audience, and it felt like they were playing for YOU AND YOU ALONE, GODDAMMIT AND WHO ARE THESE NEW FANS AND DO THEY REALLY UNDERSTAND and so on and on and on. The bottom line is that a certain kind of fan will always conflate B&S'smusical merits with the kind of kick you get out of thinking that the reason you're the only 9th-grade B&S fan at your school is that only you can appreciate them. Like hardcore Smiths fans, B&S fans tend to take what they view as diletantte incursion way too seriously.
2) A few years ago, a friend of mine was trolling around on a Livejournal Belle & Sebastian forum, and found the saddest post in the world. It was from a 20-year oldman, who said he'd love to go see the band live but his parents wouldn'tl et him. 'Nuff said.
If you're not getting the drift yet: Belle &Sebastian fans can be fucking annoying, and for a long time I didn't listen to them for that reason. I was mildly charmed by If You're Feeling Sinister when I got around to it, a record that continues to grow on me at every listen. Still, there's no denying that Dear Catastrophe Waitressis so. Much. Better. For one thing, it's got the incredibly witty production of Trevor Horn, who's ADD-addled in all the best ways - like on the title track, when Stuart Murdoch sings "I know it's no joke" and a sarcastic xylophone undercuts him, or later on the same song when Horn throws in a full, Gershwin-imitating horn/strings section just for the hell of it.
For another thing, B&S were always far more musically adventurous than their fans were ever willing to give them credit for: the divisive release of "Your Cover's Blown," with its perfectly tuned white-boy funk, proved that they're way ahead of some of their fans. Similarly, this album masters not just fragile mope-rock but a variety of aggressive pop forms, all of which sparkle so finely that even the middle-school mope of "Lord Anthony" seems acceptable. I like this album a lot, and demand to know what the fuck is wrong with everyone.
Aimee Mann, Bachelor No. 2 - I'm guessing that Mann really did peak on the fascinatingly convoluted arrangements of the Magnolia soundtrack. This 2000 album shares four tracks and Jon Brion, but it's a lot less diverse; truth be told, I rarely make it past track 7. What's there is so warm, witty and well-constructed that I'm hard-pressed to ask for more: "Ghost World" in particular is a scarily acute portrait of post-high-school slacker malaise. "All my friends are acting weird or way too cool," sings Mann, and the cinematic strings and electric guitars pound away. Still, it's hard to blame those who think a lot of Mann is too much of a good thing; I'm starting to agree, a bit, even if I just discovered 2 or 3 of my new favorite songs on this album. It's a shuffle thing.
Brakes, Give Blood - a 2005 remainder (I'll probably post a belated 2005 top 10 this weekend when I have a second). It's country-fied punk with soul, wit, and pissiness to spare, all in a terse half-hour. Some of it is just inside-baseball scenester-bashing, which is really funny if you're in the mood and catch the references (test: do you find the line "You shared a cab with Karen O! Oh oh, oooooh oh!" funny? If not, avoid "Heard About Your Band," which is probably the only song which will ever mention Electrelane.). But along with 30-second fuck-yous, there's also riches like a cover of Johnny Cash's "Jackson" that boasts a female indie rocker who might actually be able to give Neko Case a run for her money (quick: American/British Idol face-off!) and "All Night Disco Party," a distilled dose of the disco-punk which was all the rage 2-3 years ago, except more fun. Brakes sing a great deal about boredom and cocaine, but they're the real deal. And I don't care if they're a side project.