Belle and Sebastian write about love

Occasionally, I find myself muttering things along the lines of “it’s about time for ______ to release another album”. I try not to say these things too often because I, like most of you (the discerning listeners I know you are), ultimately prefer quality over quantity and I’d hate for my favorite bands to put out something rushed and rubbish because they’re afraid I’ll start snatching up Justin Bieber records left and right if they don’t. That said, four and a half years after the release of The Life Pursuit, it really is time for Belle & Sebastian to release another record. So I think you can understand what a relief it is to add Belle and Sebastian Write About Love to the rotation.

As with any Belle & Sebastian release, there are a handful of people who are once again irate that the band haven’t slapped a new cover onto If You’re Feeling Sinister and called it a day. For the rest of us who realize that fourteen years is a long time in the life of a band (Stuart Murdoch is 42 for goodness’ sake!) and that some changes are bound to happen, there is, instead, the search for that ineffable quality that makes a Belle & Sebastian record a Belle & Sebastian record. Most will, of course, find the answer they’re looking for by the conclusion of the album’s opener “I Didn’t See It Coming” with Sarah Martin taking on the bulk of the vocals. Those holding out for an even more vintage B&S vibe will be pleased with “Read the Blessed Pages” which harks all the way back to the unreleased (to my knowledge) “Rhoda” and is, arguably, the most straightforward and personal song Stuart has put out in a decade.

Stylistically, Write About Love falls somewhere between the intricately orchestrated Dear Catastrophe Waitress and the more intimate affairs of the late 90s. Speaking of affairs, there is one holdover from last year’s excursion into God Help the Girl, namely the presence of guest vocalists. It’s not as if the band have never involved guest vocalists—who could forget Monica Queen’s epic turn on the inimitable “Lazy Line Painter Jane”?—but this time round, you might say the guest vocals have gone markedly upmarket. Most notably for casual fans of the mainstream is “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John”, a duet between Stuart Murdoch and, believe it or not, Norah Jones. It’s a juxtaposition that’s jarring at first, but after a few listens, you begin to realize that there is in fact room for Miss Jones in the B&S aesthetic. More likely to go unnoticed is the title track, a healthy dose of northern soul with a hefty cameo by Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan bound to boost my Whovian crush on my darling Sally Sparrow by at least 47 points.

While “Write About Love”, with its pitch-perfect blend of Life Pursuit and God Help the Girl, is easily the high point of the album for me, there is more still to sate your obsession for the next few years. There’s the crisply soulful “I Want the World to Stop” and Stevie Jackson’s pseudo-psychedelic “I’m Not Living In the Real World”, both of which went over beautifully with the last night’s audience at the Chicago Theater. And on the old school front is the sweetly melodic “Ghost of Rockschool” and some priceless moments scattered throughout “Calculating Bimbo”.

Those of you who are regular readers probably know what I am going to say next. It’s my favorite thing about this blogging racket: the fact that I have absolutely no obligation to maintain any semblance of neutrality. You’re only reading this because you want to know what I think about Belle and Sebastian Write About Love and I’ve only bothered to write about it because I want you to know why I was able to listen to it six hours a day for the better part of a week. God knows I’ve never seen a penny from anything I’ve ever written here and I’m certainly not beholden to any of the parties involved with this album. To my knowledge, I have only ever been in the same building as Stuart Murdoch once, but he and the rest of the Belles have been in my head for years and to hear Belle and Sebastian Write About Love is pretty solid proof that they are still there. Like I said, ineffable.


In Defense of Pure Music

I’m sorry if you’ve read this already. I posted it on my other blog over the weekend, but I think it’s an important point to be made, so I wanted to post it in a more high-traffic area. You all know I love both pop and classical music. I frequently inflict both upon you. I hate to be told that one of my loves is more essential than or superior to the other, as a blogger from Rosebrook Classical suggested last week. Let’s be clear (though most of you already know this), I am not choosing a side here. I am choosing both sides and neither side.

I feel as if I owe you all an apology. I’ve spent the last two weeks transcribing an interview I conducted in London several months ago and haven’t had time to post any reviews. Once you’ve read it, though, I think you’ll forgive me. At 7,500 words, it is rather epic, which is precisely why I am not apologising for the recent lack of activity. No, my sin was committed over a year ago, when I was given an hour with Shara Worden—one of the brightest lights in American music—yet failed to pursue the most interesting topic broached in our time together: the idea of pure music.

Immediately following our meeting, I thought I had done quite well, especially for my first ever interview. Of course, that was a long time ago, before I had fallen in with ne’er-do-wells like Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette and become a card-carrying member of the alt-classical movement. Then again, at the time, I didn’t expect to read something like this:

We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.

Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way.

~ Rosebrook Classical blog

Likewise, I never expected to hear such absurdist speculation called “intelligent” by people I respect and who (I think) respect me. (Actually, “absurdist speculation” implies a degree of self-awareness in the author. In this case, it’s more like polemical condescension.)

[If you need to take a moment to let off some steam, punch a pillow, or swear a bit, I completely understand. Just try to keep in mind, they don’t intend to “seem snobby”. We will reconvene momentarily.]

Now, if you’ve been brave enough to read the offending post from the beginning, you may have picked up on the author’s “reason” for launching an unwarranted attack on feckless simpletons like Emilie Simon (Medieval Music, La Sorbonne; Electronic Music, IRCAM), Owen Pallett (Composition, University of Toronto), and Dave Longstreth (Yale). (Hint: It’s money.) And, I will grant that the initial question of the “discussion” is an interesting one. Why any form of music be granted non-profit status or given the benefit of government funding? Unfortunately, rather than exploring the issue, the author (I don’t know his name, but I think I heard someone say “David”, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns) resorts to repeated rehashings of his thesis: “I’m not saying classical music is better, but, seriously, we all know it is…”.

Of course, had he conducted more (or any) thorough research, he probably would have noticed the myriad examples of national governments that support classical AND pop music, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the UK. However, it appears that, for the kids at Rosebrook Classical, talent is a zero sum game and only one genre can lay claim to it. How fortunate we are, then, that their presticogitateur-in-residence has had the wherewithal to explain the inherent ineptitude in my choice to write about under-appreciated pop bands rather than the 186 recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 currently on the market.

It’s the creativity, don’t you see? Classical musicians have it. Pop musicians don’t, at least not in the high concentration classical musicians do. After all, as we learned earlier, “pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way”. He’s probably right, of course. I mean the Antarctic field recordings Emilie Simon sampled and modified for Marche de l’Empéreur were all naturally occurring, as were the plant and water sounds she used for Végétal (my pick for album of the decade). And that’s not creativity, that’s stealing! After all, “creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else”.

Wait. Creativity is learned? No one ever taught me that!

But didn’t Sir Ken Robinson once say “we are educating people out of their creative capacities….I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”? (In case you’re wondering, yes, he did, in his legendary TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, which you can watch below or on the TED website). But seriously, who cares what a world-renowned expert on innovation and creativity thinks about creativity? After all, @RBClassical (the ultimate authority) knows quite well that assigning names and rules are the building blocks of creativity, not intuition. Surely you don’t require any further explanation, but indulge me for a moment.

I was speaking with a friend—a translator—this past week who was telling me about her first experiences in translating, a gloriously delicate art if ever there was one. She explained:

When I was doing my M. Phil, I joined a translation course…because I was already a translator…and I thought it would improve my skill. […] I found that [my colleagues] translated by dealing with words as things, …whereas I would come up with the apt word instinctively. […] The outcome of that course was that…I couldn’t translate for almost two years. It had made me…too self conscious to do anything.

Of course, I don’t mean to deride education. As many of you already know, I have an advanced music degree (which is apparently why I will never be accepted or appreciated by pop musicians) but there is a lot to be said for intuition—more, in fact, than can be said for rules and systematization. Intuition is the reason why, though we followed the same rules, J.S. Bach composed his magnificent Chaconne in D minor while all Bethel Schiefer and I could manage was Canticum graduum (read: absolute rubbish).

I am beginning to realise that if I actually try to address every one of my grievances, this post is going to run about 15,000 words, so I’ll leave things to Shara Worden, and a brief extract from the interview we did last year. You remember her from My Brightest Diamond. She’s one of those stultifying pop musicians who doesn’t think about anything, as evidenced by her comments about writing her most recent album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth:

At the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs—more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the text was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”.


The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest you read the interview. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in there. And afterward, if you’re still interested in what real pop musicians think about when writing music (rather than what defensive classical music bloggers think they’re not thinking about), read the Emilie Simon interview.

Division is the last thing I want from all of this. When I first pitched the idea for The Indie Handbook to Kristin, I did so with the expressed intent of addressing classical and pop music on equal terms, because there is no superior music. And the offending blogger gets one thing right: that “if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society”. Unfortunately, the Arts are not advanced by defensive diatribes aimed at cementing one aesthetic preference firmly atop a pedestal. The higher you build your ivory tower, the further you’re carried from the Music of the Spheres.

Now, let the musicking begin.

J’adore Eux Autres

Hi, guys.  Happy Thursday.  Soon it will be May, and you know what that means, right?  Our contest!!  Which we will be announcing in May!!

Also, I have a few gems before I get on with Eux Autres.  I thought about reviewing the new New Pornographers album, Together, but I decided not to because … I don’t know.  I just decided.  But, you can listen to them on NPR’s Exclusive First Listen, and because I love them, I think that you should.  You should also check out Josh Ritter’s new album, especially “Another New World.” It is quite possibly the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year.  Maybe.  Finally, check out this crazy video of music that is actually painful to listen to.

On to other things.  Like “them other,” or Eux Autres, a band that has apparently been around from quite some time but has not gotten the audience I think they deserve.  I’ve spent some time this week listening to their 2 full-length albums…I’m pretty impressed.  Their blog indicates that a third album is well on the way, which I believe has the potential to really put these guys on the map.   She & Him and the School have been quenching my thirst for new, pure pop for a few weeks, but this week I’ve begun desperately searching for more…it’s like an unstoppable hunger…and there was Eux Autres, waiting for me.  For years.  Plus, instead of dream pop, Eux Autres falls more under the category of garage pop.  So, you get all the summer sweetness of pop and all the angst of real life.  I love it.

Eux Autres are brother and sister Heather and Nicholas Larimer plus buddy Yoshi Nakamoto.  Imagine Saturday Looks Good to Me with Jenny Watson and Ben Kweller as the vocalists.  I thought these guys might be foreign (because I’m stupid), but actually the entire band lives in San Francisco, and so again I will talk about American music while Eric covers Europe.  Eux Autres definitely focuses more on vocals and songwriting than on instrumentation, but because of the vocals, I’m okay with the less layered sound.  Although they’re poppy, they have a bit of an edge to their sound, not quite lo-fi but still a little unrefined, and it works really well.   And sometimes they sing in French, which is fun!  Their songs are unassuming, sincere stories and sentiments, which make for absolutely lovely and sometimes badass tunes.  Do I recommend one album over another?  Not really.  I have favorite songs from each album, and I think both are worth your ear time.  In fact, you can listen to all of their albums in full on their website,  NOW WATCH THIS VIDEO IT IS SO CUTE.

*Have you seen this video?  I still love half the songs regardless of how generic they are, but I found it so interesting that our ears have such simple chordal preferences.

A Picture Perfect EP from Strawberry Whiplash

Picture Perfect EP - Design by Jimmy with image from Gordon
Picture Perfect EP - Design by Jimmy with image from Gordon

Once upon a time, I told you about a band from Glasgow. No, not that one. Not that one either. This one. At the time, Strawberry Whiplash were coming off the release of their debut single “Who’s in Your Dreams” on Matinée Recordings. With it, Sandra and Laz (the same man behind Bubblegum Lemonade, also on Matinée), found an audience well prepared to be seduced by their brand of fuzzed-up C86. And now, this month, Strawberry Whiplash are back with their follow-up, the Picture Perfect EP (and, dare I say it, it nearly is).

Strawberry Whiplash reach a degree of excellence in the opening measures of this EP that few bands can even dream of and, even more impressive, manage to sustain it throughout all four tracks without ever becoming pretentious. Sandra’s vocals are hypnotic and intoxicating; delivered with such a straightforward, unassuming sweetness that the listener would certainly feel like the scum of the earth for turning a deaf ear. And yet, the fuzzy (at times, even crunchy) sound of Laz’s guitar, keeps things from ever turning saccharine.

And the Picture Perfect EP has the sixties stamped all over it. The title track features the perfect simple sixties drumbeat, reminiscent of just about every good song released from 1961-1965, whilst “Celestial” betrays shades of Strawberry Alarm Clock in between bursts of organ, a la The Doors. “Hay in a Needlestack”, with the prominent pairing of a glockenspiel doubling Sandra’s vocals on the refrain, is by far the pinnacle of sweetness on this EP. The EP closes with “Falling Through”, which is, quite simply, quintessentially Strawberry Whiplash.

I’ve been spinning this EP since Saturday. I must have listened to it about a bazillion times by now. At 11 minutes, this is not a difficult feat to accomplish, made all the easier by the fact that the band’s trademark brand of shoegaze-y C86 is particularly easy to swallow. My only issue with this picture perfect EP is that I wish it was longer; now that would be even perfecter.

You would be well advised to head over to Matinée and make your purchase as this release is limited to 1000 copies. However, if you’re the sort of person who likes to try before you buy, you can download the title track, “Picture Perfect”, here.

MP3 – Strawberry Whiplash, “Picture Perfect”

We leave at dawn, so you’d better pack your suitcase

Fair warning: what follows flies in the face of indie logic–what is left of it, anyway. If this is going to be a problem for you, then I suggest you squeeze yourself into your skinny jeans, put on a Death Cab record, and pretend someone cares what you think. Those of us who like music will carry on without you.

A true indie kid has a moral obliation to despise any artist who has launched a career via The X Factor or American Idol or some other program of that ilk. (I still love you, Kelly. Will you Marry Me?) Envy & Other Sins (MySpace) is one of those bands. They gained notoriety through Channel 4’s Mobile Act Unsigned in the waning months of 2007, booted from the competition early on before being voted back on as a wild card by a dedicated fan base (myself included). Their debut, We Leave At Dawn, was released a scant three months later. Now, nearly a year out, it remains in heavy rotation on my playlist and spends more time in the passenger seat of my car than anyone else.

Put simply, this is a brilliant piece of work. The opening tracks, “Morning Sickness” and “Almost Certainly Elsewhere” flow seemlessly one into the other. “Highness“, the first and only track I heard before the release of this album had me hooked from the first chorus. “Step Across” and “Man Bites God” are pure pop genius, culminating in a passage that bears a remarkable resemblance to Maroon 5 (minus the teeny bopper fan base and Wal-Mart shelf space, and therefore, you know, better). The brooding “Don’t Start Fires” and oddly anthemic closer “Shipwrecked” show the band at its most dramatic and, arguably, best. That is not to take anything away from the other three tracks (“Martyr“, “The Company We Keep”, and “Talk To Strangers”) that make up the latter half of We Leave At Dawn. In fact, “The Company We Keep” is one of the highlights of the album for me.

This album is replete with some of the most literate and engaging songwriting I have heard in some time yet never grows predictable or pretentious. The melodies are memorable and never dull, aided by modal shifts that would make Schubert jealous and metric displacement that is unsettling, disorienting, and wholly brilliant. The liner notes, too, are done in a masterfully executed neo-deco style. A work of art in their own right, rather than distract the listener, they perfectly complement and enhance the Gatsbian experience that is We Leave At Dawn.

I have listened to We Leave At Dawn five times today. I am about to press the repeat button again. For my money, this is the best album of 2008, hands down.