Belle & Sebastian’s Fine Sulk

When Rounder Records reached into the dustbin of music history in 1990 and snatched out the only album the Flatlanders (where Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely got their start) ever recorded, they renamed it More a Legend Than a Band . The same could be said of the Scottish group Belle & Sebastian.

Renowned for their purportedly “shy” nature when it comes to interviews and photo shoots, this Glasgow, Scotland-based septet has hit upon the perfect formula for pop notoriety in the short four years they’ve been together: The more your lips say, “No, no,” the more the jackals of the press will chase after you, barking, “Yes! Yes!”

Well, at least in Great Britain. Over here in the U.S., few could be bothered. While a small cadre of diehards holds the torch, everyone else is busy watching Billy Corgan transmogrify into Uncle Fester and musing over Britney Spears’ store-bought breasts.

Not so back in Britain, where, if the music tabs are to be believed, independent rock still holds a certain je ne sais quoi for a certain vocal minority. So much so, in fact, that Belle & Sebastian leading man Stuart Murdoch’s refusal to play pop star for the media swells recently caused one writer for the New Musical Express to yelp, “It’s intellectually insulting. It’s elitist without in any way being special. It’s perverse without in any way being radical. Self-conscious without being righteous. Petulant without being insurrectionary. And it’s intensely irritating without being the slightest bit original. All that’s left is ‘the music.’ And if that’s the case, why not stay in your bedroom? Why bother being in a band in the first place?”

Why indeed, when you could spend your time shooting the breeze with twits like that? Oh, but let’s not go there, that would be intellectually insulting. Let’s stick to those infernal Belle & Sebastian kids and their meddling music. The group’s fourth full-length album release is titled Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador), and if that’s not a warning shot across your bow, then, I don’t know what is. Whereas 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister was a masterpiece of post-adolescent yearning, and 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap sold 350,000 copies worldwide and garnered praise for its mature sound, Fold Your Hands Child takes the band’s twee woe-is-me resignation to breathtaking new depths. Which is a nice way of saying the album’s a downer–but a glorious trip below the waves, in the same way the Smiths or Neil Young or Richard and Linda Thompson could take you down and you’d thank them for it.

Slow and low, that is the tempo for about half of Fold Your Hands Child, with the songs spanning the spectrum of heartbreak. It’s not all tears before bedtime, of course. “Beyond the Sunrise” sounds curiously contemplative at first, then takes on the absurd gravity of a duet from a lost Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, sung by Ringo Starr and a breathy waif. And “Nice Day for a Sulk” (one of the best song titles since “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”) is a rainy-day jaunt full of goofy couplets (“Nice day for a sulk / The girl smells of milk”).

But then there are the not-so-goofy ones. Belle & Sebastian build pop melodies full of meticulous grace and splendor, only to lower the boom in their lyrics. “Don’t Leave the Light on, Baby” is a beautiful soul breakdown with a string arrangement good enough for Barry White, only, instead of yanking on our love jones, it begins with the announcement: “It’s been a bloody stupid day …” It only grows darker from there. The record hits bottom, emotionally, by the seventh cut, “The Chalet Lines,” a stark song about a rape. The piano plods, the cello moans and Mr. Murdoch’s gentle, quavering voice practically cracks under the weight.

When Belle & Sebastian aren’t plumbing the depths–when, say, they’re reaching for the heights on the backs of countrified soul chargers like “The Wrong Girl” or orchestral maneuvers like “I Fought in a War” and “The Model”–the trumpets blare, the flutes blow, the snare cracks and the sun breaks through. It’s at moments like these that you think: Who cares if it’s self-conscious? At least it’s self-assured. That’s the difference between legends and bands.

– Jay Stowe

Eminem: The New Don

Eminem’s latest, The Marshall Mathers LP (Interscope) has arrived, and the day of the sad clown is over. Instead, we have the mad clown, the angry clown, Pagliacci as the rapist next door–all in good fun, of course.

Every age needs its court jester; someone to tweak the ass of power as he kisses it. Eminem, whose actual name is Marshall Mathers, is the Don Rickles of Generation Y; a pop-eyed insult comic who punctuates his routine with hip-hop instead of rim shots. Mr. Mathers even offers the sort of “I’m just kidding” asides at the end of his autobiographical “Kill You,” that Mr. Rickles uses to deflect the heat from his comic warheads.

But was Mr. Rickles ever truly angry? There always was a palpable striver’s fear in his performances, a don’t-let-me-derail-my-gravy-train vibe that came from becoming an overnight success at the age of 40.

The vitriol that Mr. Mathers delivered, with a whiny ragga-tat-tat, on his 1999 debut album, The Slim Shady LP , seemed a lot more heartfelt. Much of the Broscht-Belt-style anger on that album was self-directed, and made Mr. Mathers, then 24 years old, seem more like the hip-hop equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield–remember his Rappin’ Rodney album?–than of Mr. Rickles.

The thing is, once your debut album moves a few million units, it becomes increasingly difficult to summon up proper rage. Thanks to Slim Shady , Mr. Mathers probably made more money in the last year than Mr. Rickles did in 15, and when he proclaims on the eponymous title track “I think I was put here to annoy the world,” Mr. Mathers sounds more like a mosquito than an earthquake.

As he did on his first album, Mr. Mathers raps about killing the mother of his child in “Kim,” “Kill You” and other tracks. He also spends much of Marshall Mathers threatening to sex up Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and the like. It’s funny more often than not, like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho , but the result is broader and lacks Psycho ‘s blunt political stance.

I don’t think Mr. Mathers is keeping Ms. Spears up at night (one way or the other). Much like Mr. Rickles’ references to Frank Sinatra’s ties to organized crime, Mr. Mathers’ threats do less to critique their targets than to validate them.

When Ice Cube recorded “A Bitch is a Bitch” a decade ago, it was jarring enough to permanently alter how the mainstream perceived language. Ten years on, you pedal faster but don’t get as far. All considering, Marshall Mathers is pretty good, though like all comedy albums, the results can only hold up for a handful of listens.

Part of the problem, as usual, is the beats. Slim Shady woke Dr. Dre, the rapper who oversaw the production of both of Mr. Mathers’ albums, from a long, blunt-fueled slumber. Even on the unlistenable, yet hugely popular Chronic 2000 , Dr. Dre perked up on Mr. Mathers’ contributions to the album, which were the only decent tracks on the disc. But much of the music on Marshall Mathers is lazy and uninspired West coast gangbang sludge, and Dr. Dre’s contributions seem like throwaways, although considering what was at stake, I doubt that was the case.

In the future, Mr. Mathers is going to have to dig a little deeper to find his inner nasty, especially now that his sophomore album sold 1.7 million copies in its first week of release. Introspection tends to shrivel in the hot tub of music-business success.

It’s not impossible, of course: Dr. Dre–who plays Chairman of the Board to Mr. Mathers’ Rickles–was sued for allegedly assaulting a Fox TV show hostess long after he had cleared the top of the charts with N.W.A. Philip Roth remained mean for decades. In light of his recent arrest in Detroit after scuffling with autograph seekers, Mr. Mathers may have one thing going for him: Comics tend to remain miserable long after success assaults them.

–D. Strauss

Transcendental Earle

“Okay, let’s magnetize this motherfucker,” Steve Earle says before one of the tracks on his latest album, Transcendental Blues (E-Squared/Artemis). It’s probably an order to the guys in the control booth to hit the record button, but it could just as well be Mr. Earle’s mantra.

The roads traveled on Transcendental Blues are familiar to anyone who’s listened to the musical descendants of Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie. Restless men ramble down the highway looking for love and redemption. Brokenhearted men merge with the shadows. Condemned men grapple with their destinies. They’re subjects that have been covered by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt and even Mr. Earle, to name a few.

But what makes Mr. Earle one of the finest songwriters of his time–and perhaps one best adapted to this moment when there seem to be no more new ideas or even chord progressions–is that no matter how many times he travels the same roads, already rutted by the footprints of his musical predecessors, he always comes back with something that sounds new and distinctly his own.

Mr. Earle writes deceptively simple songs and then infuses his songs with his considerable life experience, galvanizing them. The 45-year-old Mr. Earle has lived and loved a lot in that time. He’s married and divorced six times, kicked a drug habit, served a brief prison sentence and recovered from an injury to his vocal cords that occurred when he was arrested. He’s also spent a lot of time studying his art, and the music of Transcendental Blues reflects the breadth of Mr. Earle’s knowledge: Beatles and Byrds guitar riffs cohabit with bluegrass banjo licks and the trademark country music stylings of both Nashville and Galway, Ireland.

In the liner notes, Mr. Earle writes, “for me, for now, transcendence is about being still enough long enough to know when it’s time to move on.” And though his inner shitkicker seems to have slowed, he often seems to be saying on this album that he has accepted that he was born to run. “Happy ever after ’til the day you die / Careful what you ask for you don’t know ’til you try,” he sings on the hypnotic title track, which is a perfect storm of psychedelic electric guitar, mini-Moog, harmonium and Mr. Earle’s heavy, hazy voice.

On the lovely “Halo ‘Round The Moon,” which is driven by what sounds like a finger-picked Dobro, Mr. Earle seems to get at a reason for all his cutting and running: “There’s no shelter from the storm / Without the lightnin’ and the rain,” he sings. “And love would hold no charm / If it wasn’t for the pain.”

The price of that rootlessness can be quite steep, though, as Mr. Earle communicates so well on “Lonelier Than This.” A lot of men with acoustic guitars have sung about the dark abyss of loneliness, but few have been as convincing as Mr. Earle is on this track. He seems to be singing through clenched teeth, as if he’s trapped on an iceberg in the middle of the Arctic night. As an ominous-sounding snare drum marches through song, Mr. Earle decides there’s no place to go but “the dusty corners that the shadows know.”

The antidote to that song is the exhilarating, harmonica-driven “When I Fall,” which, for my money, is the best cut on Transcendental Blues . Once again, Mr. Earle is stomping through well-trod territory, the duet where man and woman singers pledge safe harbor to each other no matter how bad things get. But Mr. Earle gives the song a twist by making his duet partner his sister, Stacey Earle. Suddenly, the song is about the bond between siblings, and when Ms. Earle sings, “All these years I’ve watched you trip and stumble / There were times that I feared that you were lost,” you’ve got to figure that, given Mr. Earle’s past, she’s singing from the heart.

Transcendental Blues ends with “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” a spare tune about a prisoner giving away his few possessions before he is led away to his execution. Mr. Earle, who is staunchly anti-death penalty, has written about this subject before, most notably, from a death-row guard’s perspective in “Ellis Unit One,” which was on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack. As with that song, you never hear Mr. Earle dragging out the soapbox on “Yonder.” He just puts you in the shoes of the doomed man and lets you think some of his last thoughts.

Transcendental Blues probably won’t make much of a ripple in today’s soundscape of dancing boy bands, white rappers and glossy blond Lolitas. As Mr. Earle sings on “I Can Wait,” “In the blink of an eye / Stars’ll fall from the sky / No one even notices.” But anyone who’s been keeping track of Mr. Earle’s output–five worthy albums in almost as many years–will know that’s okay. Ten years from now when Christina Aguilera and Limp Bizkit are specks in the rearview mirror, Mr. Earle’s music will endure, like the two-lane from which it draws so much life.

–Frank DiGiacomo

To reach Manhattan Music, e-mail fdigiacomo@observer.com. Belle & Sebastian’s Fine Sulk