Great Scots
Belle and Sebastian and the First Great Record of 2006

The race for the best album of 2006 is officially on.

Now, to be sure, there are some hefty competitors throwing down within the next few months. No less than Ray Davies of the Kinks makes his solo debut on February 21, and new records are expected from the likes of Matthew Sweet, Eric Matthews, the Elms, Grandaddy, the Lilys, and Michael Roe. Plus there’s a special bonus contender, and I’ll get more into that later, and next week.

But for now, the field is wide open, the title for the taking. And Belle and Sebastian have taken it.

I am, admittedly, late to the party on this band. I jumped aboard in 2000, with Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant, and found it pleasant, if unremarkable. There’s such a cult, such a legend around this band, and I didn’t get it. Further exploration only confused me more – If You’re Feeling Sinister, one of those records around which the word “masterpiece” floats like a cloud, left me somewhat cold. They were nice songs, but nothing to get worked up over.

And I’m afraid I have concluded that I just disagree with the cult. Part of it must be that I wasn’t there at the beginning – I didn’t track down and trade bootleg cassettes of Tigermilk before it was released in the U.S. I didn’t spend college nights dissecting the stories and images on Sinister. I don’t have any particular attachment to the early albums, which makes it easier, I’ll grant, for me to disregard them. I’m not, of course – I like the first four records, especially The Boy With the Arab Strap, but they don’t sound like my life, which seems to be the separation point.

Another disagreement: many seem to think that Belle and Sebastian (named after a French television show) have been on a downward slide since Sinister, with some suggesting that the later albums are almost parodies of the early ones. I’m not hearing it. In fact, I think they’ve been getting better and better, expanding on the simple folk-pop of the first two records. Stuart Murdoch, the band’s visionary, has even learned to sing, something he hadn’t quite perfected on his first few tries.

Even so, I had written them off – the best record of theirs I had heard was Peasant, and it still didn’t thrill me. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I missed Dear Catastrophe Waitress, their 2003 transformation, and I’m indebted to Matt DeFour for bringing me back. What I expected would be just another Belle and Sebastian album was, in fact, a huge upheaval in the sound. Stuart Murdoch took over, bringing with him a huge eraser and some fascinating influences.

What emerged was not so much a reinvention as a revelation – a melodic monster of a pop record. The opener, “Step Inside My Office, Baby,” was the most complete and electrifying song Murdoch had written, all bright and beautiful, and the album followed suit. Now, I will grant you, quite a bit of my love for this record comes from Murdoch’s musical choices closely mirroring my own preferences – he had to pick a direction, and he picked ‘60s pop, one of the keys to my heart. But a lot of bands try to do ‘60s pop, and they discover that it ain’t easy. B&S pulled it off winningly.

Their sixth full-length, The Life Pursuit, follows the same Sloan-esque path, but if Waitress was their One Chord to Another, this is their Navy Blues. It’s somehow stripped down and yet bigger-sounding, and the songs are more rock-oriented and less immediate. In essence, though, this album is the final nail in the coffin of the band’s old sound. There’s nothing about a song like “White Collar Boy” that you could describe as twee, one of the most commonly used adjectives in early reviews. “The Blues are Still Blue” sounds so much like the Steve Miller Band, in fact, that I can imagine fans of Sinister shivering in disgust.

Credit must go to the producers the band has chosen for their one-two punch. Waitress was sculpted by Trevor Horn, perhaps best known for Yes’ 90125 and Seal’s first two albums, and for Pursuit, the band worked with Tony Hoffer, the man behind Supergrass’ phenomenal Life on Other Planets, among other retro-cool records of note. Hoffer’s sound here is pure 1960s, but less glossy than Horn’s work. The embellishments are just as numerous here – there are horns, clarinets, bassoons, and oceans of backing vocals – but they’re not as up-front and ear-grabbing. It takes a few listens to really hear everything that’s going on in this record.

Like Sloan’s stuff, this album sounds to me like the band built a time machine and slipped back a few decades. It’s an old-time, well-crafted pop album, the kind that makes me want to turn it over after six songs. This record is absolutely in sides, as well – side one, which ends with “Sukie in the Graveyard,” is the more straightforward half, the more rock ‘n’ roll stuff, whereas side two finds Murdoch stretching out a bit to incorporate sunshine pop and bouncy funk. “We Are the Sleepyheads” makes even me want to dance, and trust me, I should never dance. But just try to stay still while this kinetic gem is playing, the backing vocals echoing off the walls. There’s even a couple of searing guitar solos in it.

As much as I appreciate and love the energy on this record, it’s the slower, more thoughtful ones that move me this time. “Dress Up in You” might be the prettiest thing in Murdoch’s catalog, despite the tenderly delivered vulgarities, and the trumpet solo is right out of Burt Bacharach’s handbook. “Song for Sunshine” has overtones of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, until it blossoms into a glorious chorus. And the album ends gracefully with “Mornington Crescent,” an acoustic piece that is the closest this album comes to the band’s wistful folk of old.

Many will say that I have no right to call The Life Pursuit a great Belle and Sebastian album. They may be right, and I won’t deny that my perspective is not as nuanced as those who were there from the start. Those same people have been decrying the later albums as empty, and I think what they mean is that they don’t mean to them what Sinister does. I know that feeling, and I can relate. I can only like what I like, though, and the songwriting and production of The Life Pursuit sounds miles, light years ahead of the group’s humble origins to me.

Hopefully the cult will come around, because I doubt they’re going back to four-tracks and furtive secrets, and The Life Pursuit is a great record. Like I said, the race is on, and it is incredibly early, but for right now, Belle and Sebastian have the album of the year.

* * * * *

Next week, I hope, a special treat. I am once again indebted to Dr. Tony Shore (which means I’m gonna have to link him again) for giving me the heads-up on this.

Once upon a time, there was a band called Human Radio. They made an incredible debut, a perfect progressive pop masterpiece, in 1990. They made a terrific follow-up the next year that was never released. And then they went away. Singer/songwriter Ross Rice made a decent solo album in 1997, but aside from that, nothing. Still, I scour the internet constantly for news about Rice, because those two Human Radio albums are enough to put him in my pantheon of pop songwriters.

How I missed the release of Ross’ second album, Dwight, is beyond me, but Dr. Shore has kindly filled me in with a typically ecstatic review. The disc is on its way to me, and if it’s half as good as Tony says it is, then I can’t wait. These are the moments I live for.

Next week, obviously, Ross Rice, if it gets here in time. If not, there’s always Beth Orton’s great new one, Comfort of Strangers, to discuss.

See you in line Tuesday morning.