Belle and Sebastian, the Scottish band that romanced indie rockers in the 90′s with their exquisitely twee boarding-school pop, always seemed to exist in some gauzy paradise where wan poets in natty V-neck sweaters smoked French cigarettes, read Verlaine and made love only when it rained.
Their last album was the soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s Storytelling in 2002, and it was really more of the same. But now, with Dear Catastrophe Waitress , which debuts on Oct. 7, they don’t sound so twee. It’s no longer, as Jack Black complained in High Fidelity , “sad-bastard music.” It appears the misty little cloud that hung over lead singer and songwriter Stuart Murdoch has lifted. And that’s good, because it’s the best album the band has ever made, and one of the best pop records you’ll hear this year.
Mr. Murdoch’s talent with melody and lyrics-and especially his taste for the literary side of pop-is serving a saucier muse now. The new album’s opening track, “Step Into My Office, Baby,” works a wink-wink-nudge-nudge metaphor about a love interest working “overtime” and being “qualified” for the “job.” No Verlaine here! With its playful, uptempo piano melody and umph -y soul delivery, it could be the theme song to that painfully smarmy BBC America TV comedy, The Office .
Mr. Murdoch has left the melancholy Highlands and seen America: the bright lights of New York City, baseball games in San Francisco (listen to “Piazza, New York Catcher,” in which he attends a Mets-Padres game and wonders if Mr. Piazza is “straight or gay?”) and the great vastness in between: He must have rifled through the record stores of Milwaukee and Detroit and returned with skinny arms loaded with the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Marvin Gaye and assorted 1960′s American R&B. The result is less fey than before, but still deeply feeling.
Mr. Murdoch has a way of pushing past his influences and coming out with something disarmingly original and organic-which is rare nowadays, considering this is the era of perfect pop simulacrum like the Strokes.
In one of the best songs on the album, “Roy Walker,” soaring, feel-good harmonies à la the Mamas and the Papas are carried along by bluesy Yardbirds guitars, but then the song takes a daft turn: The instruments fall away and Mr. Murdoch starts snapping his fingers and singing a hop-along Broadway melody about “the forces of the Lord’s choreography.” It’s weird , but it works.
It’s clear that Mr. Murdoch has found a soulmate in the short-lived late-60′s geniuses the Zombies, a band whose mastery of baroque pop shone the way for bands trying to stretch the orchestral Brian Wilson sound into a new classicism. Unfortunately the Zombies didn’t last long, folding after an unsung triumph, 1968′s Odessey & Oracle , but many of the best bands playing today have picked up where they left off.
Mr. Murdoch hasn’t completely abandoned the “sad-bastard” sound. “Lord Anthony,” a song about a tragic weakling boy who gets abused in school (“tasting blood again, at least it’s your own”), is pure porcelain, a gorgeous, Velvety song lifted softly by strings as the narrator asks: “When will you realize it doesn’t pay to be smarter than teachers, smarter than most boys? Shut your mouth, start kicking the football.”
That segues into one of the year’s best pop songs, “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love.” It’s a five-minute tambourine-rattling R&B epic, with a shockingly (for Scottish guys) funky bass line, lavish strings and California harmonies. Mr. Murdoch’s lyrics feel like an emphatic homage to Marvin Gaye. “Say a prayer to the man above, thank him for everything you know,” he sings. And: “Thank him for every day you ask, you should thank him for saving your sorry ass.”
Later, he faces the war with Iraq as an unreconstructed romantic: “I like to marvel at the random beauty of the simple village girl,” he continues, “why should she be the one who’s killed?”
Campbell’s True Grit
A comedian somewhere once said of his father: “The man missed the 1960′s entirely. He had two 50′s and a 70′s.”
Glen Campbell, the jut-chinned crooner who favored exquisitely polished, countryish productions, was a quintessential Everyman who had two 50′s and a 70′s. In 1969, he was a huge sensation with all the wrong people: He had his own family TV show on CBS ( The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour ), and he costarred with John Wayne in True Grit . As a singer, he was from the Sinatra lineage, with a little Pabst Blue Ribbon thrown in for country-crossover appeal-and that pretty much damned him for all eternity in the eyes of anyone who revered Mick Jagger.
But Mr. Campbell will finally get his due on Oct. 7, when Capitol Records issues The Legacy 1961-2001 , a four-disc, 80-song compilation. Mr. Campbell’s ambitious country pop-”countripolitan,” they call it-is yet more evidence that some of the best music of the late 60′s was made not by transgressive artistes , but by utter squares who tried very hard to fit into times for which they were clearly not made.
In the last few years, Mr. Campbell’s stature has slowly begun to shift. Johnny Cash counted Mr. Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” as one of his favorite songs of all time. Lately, the fantastic Kentucky band My Morning Jacket touched the hem of Mr. Campbell’s garment with a song called “Golden,” a gorgeous chip off “Gentle on My Mind.” And in London, two D.J.’s named Rikki and Daz have remade “Rhinestone Cowboy” into a club hit, adding a thumping beat and inviting Mr. Campbell to be in the video, dressed in black and looking a lot like Crocodile Dundee. (Mr. Campbell’s not hip yet, however: He’s in Branson, Mo., for the next month.)
In 2003′s Heartaches by the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles , a book by two very passionate country-music revisionists, Mr. Campbell’s 1969 hit “Galveston” is listed as No. 56-surprisingly high when you consider that Mr. Campbell barely set foot in Nashville, having spent most of his career in L.A. But as the authors point out, the song-written by Jimmy Webb, who penned all the best Campbell songs-was a remarkably moving take on Vietnam. “I am so afraid of dying,” he sang, “before I dry the tears she’s crying, before I watch your seabirds flying in the sun, at Galveston.”
A deep, reverb-bathed surf guitar follows those lyrics, like waves washing on a shore, and the whole thing begs to be made into the opening sequence of a very sad movie. As a hot-shit riff-meister in the legendary Wrecking Crew of L.A. session musicians, Mr. Campbell seemed to pick up inflections from everyone along the way. He played with Sinatra, Elvis and Dick Dale, and he worked closely with Mr. Wilson, for whom he filled in on the Beach Boys’ 1964 tour when a depressed Mr. Wilson went home to compose Pet Sounds . Ultimately, Mr. Campbell was a chameleon, his talent not so much songwriting or production as it was his feel for pop music as cinema . For Mr. Campbell, the song was a soundscape, a movie set on which he could star as a rugged romantic-John Wayne with a set of pipes, playing a “lineman for the county,” or a guy who’s headed for Phoenix and breaking his woman’s heart. Not for nothing did he live in Hollywood.
What made it work was the voice: a high-lonesome, almost unpardonably melodramatic, quasi-operatic voice, which he always let soar into a triumphalist grand finale meant to bring the roof down.
And while Mr. Campbell may have committed many pop sins-only three-quarters of The Legacy is worthwhile; the rest, beginning with 1975′s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” is imitative, sappy, generic or just plain bad-when he was in top form and began to quiver and cry about whatever love drama he was singing about, he was disconcertingly soulful. It was the kind of soul that Jack Nicholson captured so well in Five Easy Pieces , when he played a classical piano prodigy looking for authenticity among West Texas roughnecks.
Like Mr. Nicholson, Mr. Campbell stared, squinty-eyed, into that jaundiced 70′s sun at dusk, far from home, in need of love or, more likely, leaving it behind, and felt haunted by a world where men with true grit were growing scarce. And if the glory and romance of the past had suffocated in the miasma of the counterculture, then, by God, Glen Campbell would re-create that glory and romance, scene by scene.
Yes, Mr. Campbell was an actor, but it was the inherent futility of his act that makes his music now seem authentic, sad and beautiful.