It’s not unheard of for a band to provide the soundtrack for an album and history would indicate that it is really something of a hit or miss experience. Think about it. Where would we be if Once had not launched The Swell Season into the spotlight? Then again, Björk’s soundtrack for Dancer In the Dark (a sickeningly brilliant film by Lars von Trier) was a major disappointment, if only because the other actors who sang with her could not begin to approach the shear drama and power packed into every pitch she produces. God Help the Girl is, in a way, a soundtrack as well, but one accompanying a film by Stuart Murdoch that does not quite exist yet. So we have to begin the review process at a loss.
Several years ago, Belle & Sebastian did provide the soundtrack for Storytelling, considered by many to be a disappointment (I will reserve judgment on this one). God Help the Girl is not Belle & Sebastian, however. Yes, Stuart Murdoch and Stevie Jackson did write these songs, but Stuart, Stevie, Chris, Mick, and Stuart David played several tracks written by Isobel Campbell on the first Gentle Waves record and no one counts that as part of the B&S catalogue. That said, the Belle & Sebastian spirit is apparent throughout this record, if not the sound itself. Perhaps it is most accurate to say that this is what B&S would sound like if Stuart Murdoch had been a woman.
This is most obvious on tracks like “Act of the Apostle” and “Funny Little Frog” both of which appeared on The Life Pursuit, though the performance of Brittany Stallings adds a degree of sexiness to a fabulously northern soul infused rendering of “Funny Little Frog” lacking in the B&S original (sorry, Stuart). The B&S influence can also be heard on “Musician, Please Take Heed” which sounds to me like “Marx and Engels” in a minor key (though you could make arguments for “Songs for Children/On the Radio” as well). For that matter, “Musician, Please Take Heed” is a good example of everything that I love about this album.
It is the influence of 60s girl groups and orchestration that is most pervasive throughout this record. Think of the heavily orchestrated tracks from Dear Catastrophe Waitress (for instance, the flourishes of the title track) to get an idea. This is most apparent on tracks like “Musician, Please Take Heed”, “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie”, and “I Just Want Your Jeans”. Then there are the vocal performances from Stuart’s so-called “girl group”, in several places an homage to the great girl groups of the 60s such as on the title track. (Also of note is the contrast of the 60s style female vocals against the 80s new wave style of Neil Hannon on “Perfection as a Hipster”, which somehow works.)
For those expecting God Help the Girl to be just another Belle & Sebastian album, I suggest putting the last track, “A Down and Dusky Blonde”, on infinite repeat. This track is, in almost every way, vintage B&S. From the tempo and chord progression, to the strum pattern and lyrics (“I read a book a day like an apple but I did not eat / So the doctor came to me and said / A woman does not live by the printed word / Forgive yourself and eat”). The only thing missing from the mix are Stuart’s vocals, the song performed instead by the three women who take the lead on most of the other tracks as well. Those who are so inclined will be much happier that way. They are also idiots. This is a great record featuring some exciting newcomers (particularly Catherine Ireton) alongside reliable and seasoned veterans and only a sad excuse for a human being would deprive themselves of that.