Belle and Sebastian worth ‘Pursuit’

Mike Morrone

Belle and Sebastian

The Life Pursuit

US release: Feb. 7, 2006

Omigoodness, what would the world even do without Belle and Sebastian? Admittedly, this reviewer came late to the Belle and Sebastian fold, but as I began to appreciate “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” lamented the past to “The Boy Done Wrong Again,” and daydreamed between the sunbeams and clouds 10,000 feet in the air to “A Century of Fakers,” I became a full-fledged, card-carrying Belle and Sebastian fan. (The card is in the mail, I hope.)

Now Belle and Sebastian have returned with “The Life Pursuit,” which is uniformly excellent and their second best album to date. The consistent high achievement ten-plus years into their career is worthy of note in and of itself. (Rivers, its time to paint the walls black and cover the windows again. Yes, I’m still incredulous over “Make Believe.”)

“The Life Pursuit” starts rhythmically with maraca and piano chords in “Act of the Apostle.” Stuart Murdoch has always sung tales about young girls and women caught up in existential crises particularly well. Organ flourishes mingle with familiar religious imagery: “Morning prayers took the girl unawares / She was late for class and she knew it.” The song is a treat and breezes by in less than three minutes.

“Another Sunny Day” harkens back to the bands creative/critical/popular peak, “If You’re Feeling Sinister.” Jangly guitars are jaunty and nimble, although one certifiable difference between the aforementioned “Sinister” and this song is the expletive in the second verse. (I am no prude, but it is my firm belief that some bands just shouldn’t curse, even if you sing of S & M and other provocative topics; cursing in otherwise perfect chamber pop masterpieces just isn’t par for the course.) Background harmonies augment frontman Murdoch’s fey upper registers. Descending chord progressions backed with chimes add to the song’s chipper sentiment.

“The White Collar Boy” is lavish, full of wordy lyrics (“You’re a warden’s pet, she’s a screaming suffragette”), with more backing harmonies, propulsive drums and sudden incessant cymbal crashes. The keyboards, a newer element to the B & S repertoire are more than complementary. The fourth track, “The Blues Are Still Blue,” is a certifiable highlight of the album. Murdoch does his best Marc Bolan (T. Rex) growl as the song shimmies in and out of your speakers. This is the catchiest song about laundry ever. (You can promptly file it into the “Esoteric Song Subject Files,” which includes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps,” the best song about cartography ever.)

Murdoch still has his lyrical bite. In “Dress Up In You,” his lounge-style croon accompanies a tight, piano-led instrumental. His put-downs and back-handed assurances would make a younger Moz cry (well, cry more anyway). Mick Cooke comes in right in time with his trumpet to propel the song to another level. “We Are The Sleepeyheads” is a retro, effervescent joy. Upbeat guitars jockey with the fast-paced drumming and bouncy bass. The same tried and true elements that are found in many of B & S’s best songs are present here, and then out of nowhere, a very surprising and chipper guitar solo stops everything in its tracks and allows the song to continue. “Song For Sunshine” is a sterling mix of throwback soul elements, including a distinctive guitar and layers upon vocal layers for the chorus.

Lead single “Funny Little Frog” is certainly worthy of its distinction. It is a tale of a boy’s love of a girl from afar. Murdoch’s piano is ebullient as James Swinburne’s sax is true. This song validates life, seriously. Even the one track not sung by Murdoch, Stevie Jackson’s “To Be Myself Completely,” is a more than serviceable album track, with arguably the best lyrical revelation on the album – “But to be myself completely / I’ve just got to let you down.” This track reminds me of the James Kirk tracks, such as “Wan Light,” on Orange Juice’s “You Can’t Hide Your Love Away Forever,” a refreshingly welcome diversion to allow the listener to fully appreciate the frontman’s tunes all the more.

Every song demands attention. They would all be surefire radio hits in a parallel universe where modern music on the radio mattered. More than that, the album’s artwork is exceptional, and Matador, the band’s longtime label, has somehow improved on the gorgeous format of “Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.” The throwback, textured package of the deluxe edition enhances the photography, both of the band and the wholly tempting models dressed in sexier versions of traditional Scottish attire of kilts. As always, the band’s liner notes are dense and ironic. This time there is an extensive Q and A between fans and members of the band. As an added bonus that is unequivocally recommended, the deluxe edition features a 30-minute DVD of a program recorded for the BBC featuring half of the album, plus brief, intimate interludes by Murdoch as landmark pictures and artwork from the band’s career pass by on screen.

Without a doubt, everyone should check out this album. It is the first album in a long time by an established artist that has not disappointed this set of very discriminating ears in some way.