REVIEW: Belle & Sebastian: Storytelling
Belle & Sebastian: Storytelling [Matador, 2002]
Three words? Heard it before.
There's something worse than a favourite band that starts to suck. Namely, a favourite band that simply stops being very good. Sloan goes from Twice Removed and One Chord to Another to the not bad Navy Blues. REM releases Reveal. And Belle & Sebastian, Scottish twee royalty, the creators of the astounding and wonderful Tigermilk/If You're Feeling Sinister/Boy With the Arab Strap trilogy... they now release albums like Storytelling.
This isn't a terrible album - in fact, it's better than the band's last LP, Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant. The incidental music is pleasant, the instrumentation varied - harmonica, trumpet, piano, vibes, Salsa percussion - and the six new songs are entertaining in that violins-and-acoustic-guitar kind of way. Stuart Murdoch's gentle, kind delivery is too endearing for me to hate, and the "la la la's" under the sexually-/racially-/academically-charged film dialogue of "Mandingo Cliche" is quite delightful. Still, this isn't the work of an a-list group of singer-songwriters and musicians. After enjoying last year's I'm Waking Up to Us EP so much, I had hoped that B&S were back on the track to masterpiece. Sadly, I was mistaken.
Storytelling is made up of songs composed for Todd Solondz's film of the same name. From what I understand however, most of B&S' music was cut from the movie, making this more of a pretend soundtrack. Still, the director's slight didn't prevent Belle & Sebastian from throwing in a generous handful of dialogue tracks. Though the high-school rant of "Jersey's Where America's At!" is amusing the first-time through, it's incredibly annoying on repeated listens - and this is true of all the spoken-word cuts.
Storytelling's instrumental tracks are quite engaging - "Fuck This Shit" has a reassuring harmonica melody, like the opening to a sitcom. "Consuelo Leaving" is particularly good, mixing Latin bounce with soaring violins, martial snares, and Isobel's light voice. "Fiction" begins the CD with a pleasing piano theme, touched with guitar and strings. It returns throughout the disc - as film music should - but as I find with most movie scores, it's not at all affecting. A nice tune, sure; sort of nostalgic I guess; but where's the emotion? What is the band trying to say? The violinists play like competent amateurs, following their sheet-music but investing their interpretation with humdrum placidity. "Freak" feels like a second-rate repeat of "Fiction" - there's a change of key, but a consistency of unfeeling. For those of us who expect more than aural wallpaper from B&S, this is positively maddening.
"Black and White Unite" (track seven!) finally introduces some original lyrics. There's a shuffling railroad beat, triple-tracked summery vocals, and innocuous images of picnics and lovesick boys. The song feels friendly and sounds quite gorgeous - it's archetypical Belle & Sebastian fare, and that's precisely the problem. The band has done this before, and better. Though 'more of the same' continues to sell records, it ceases to be Great, it ceases to be Art. Like the alt-rockers on your local radio station, each one a clone of the next, Belle & Sebastian have become an uninspired clone of themselves. A caricature.
The title-track is an accelerated variation on Fold Your Hands' "Family Tree". "Wandering Alone", pleasing in its Carribean stylings, has strings so syrupy I drown, and singing so affected I wince. "Scooby Driver" is poppy and spirited, but lacks the melody of "The Boy with the Arab Strap". And "Big John Shaft", despite a loopy melody, witty lyrics, and a groovy vibraphone-and-bo-diddley bottom, feels phoned-in, without energy. It sounds, basically, like a lousy take - and it's enough to kill the song.
But then, this is precisely the problem: Storytelling tries and fails. There are still flickers of life here, of genius, but they don't solidify. Instead, they materialize as echoes of past work. There's a cruel irony in the fact that the album's best track, the only one worth paying for - "I Don't Want to Play Football" - is also the disc's shortest song. For fifty-seven seconds, however, there's some magic here, something to have faith in. Make it fifty-seven minutes, kids, and I'll be back in the fanclub.