Dear Catastrophe Waitress is the fifth proper album by the wussy but brilliant Glaswegian pop-rock outfit Belle and Sebastian (or the sixth if you count too-short soundtrack album Storytelling). Produced by pop supremo Trevor Horn, it is smooth and rich, pretty and infectiously catchy. It is also, I think, wittier than anything they've put out since The Boy with the Arab Strap.
There is more of Stuart Murdoch here (the band's frontman) than we have seen for a long time. He sings lead vocal on all but two of the tracks, and seems to have done most of the writing as well - although their web site tells us that song-writing in the band is much more of a collaborative effort than it used to be, and more of the songs feature vocal harmonies than ever before. This is the first B&S release since the departure of Isobel Campbell, and a number of the songs contain what sound like possible references to her, the least dubious of these being the line 'we lost a singer to her clothes', in I'm a Cuckoo. While her sweet voice and musical talents are missed, I have a niggling suspicion that her absence is one reason why the band seem so much more chilled and ready to keep touring.
More than anything, the album has the air of a band who are really enjoying themselves, having a great time doing what they do best. They sound more relaxed than they have done in a long time, and the fun of making music seeps through on every track - even, to some extent, the sad and downbeat classic Lord Anthony. This record is also better-produced, or at least more extensively produced, than any of their other full-length albums, and more musicians were involved in its making than ever before - they might already be an eight-piece even before bringing in anyone else, but that clearly doesn't cause them any qualms about bringing in another forty-two musicians* just because they can. The results sound musically glorious, and somehow still manage to avoid diluting the essential B&S-ness of it all.
Here's a run-down of the songs:
The catchiest song on the album and an obvious choice of single (out on the 17th of November), this is a comical tale of the grey area between office romance and sexual harrassment.
She gave me some dictation
But my strength is in administration
I took down all she said
I even took down her little red dress
The title track is a gorgeous, poppy number, a love song of sorts with a driving beat and rather campy delivery. This was written in 1995, and it is a mystery that it is only now making it onto a record.
I'm sorry that you seem to have the weight of the world over you.
I cherish your smile -
There's a world of peace on your lips;
Say it, and with tenderness I'll cherish you.
A mostly-acoustic song with a sort of jangly guitar line, this is pretty old-school Belle and Sebastian, folksy and lovely.
If I could do just one near-perfect thing I'd be happy
They'd write it on my grave or when they scatter my ashes
On second thoughts I'd rather hang around and be there with my best friend
If she wants me.
Basically a love story, this guitar-driven acoustic number doesn't really say much at all about the sexually-ambiguous Mets catcher.
San Francisco's calling us, the Giants and Mets will play
Piazza, New York catcher, are you straight or are you gay?
We hung about the stadium, we've got no place to stay...
Sarah Martin sings most of this warm and sunny song about love and camping.
All I need is somewhere I can feel the grass beneath my feet
A walk on sand, a fire, I can warm my hands
My joy will be complete.
Shifting the tone back towards pop and away from the folksiness of the last three tracks, this one is upbeat and eminently danceable; the notes on the web site describe it as a tribute to Thin Lizzy. It is about recovering from a breakup, though whether this is a romantic breakup or a musical one is not altogether clear.
Breaking off is misery
I see a wilderness for you and me
Punctuated by philosophy
And a wondering how things could've been
Another poppy breakup song, You Don't Send Me is full of vocal harmonies which remind me a bit of The Beatles on songs like You Won't See Me.
Every sound is tame, every group the bleedin' same
It would make you mad
What happened to the sounds that left you lying on the floor
Laughing, crying, jumping and singing?
This song about fantasy affairs is upbeat and harmonious, with an insistent piano line and all the singers joining in.
Our aspirations are wrapped up in books
Our inclinations are hidden in looks
This song about an effeminate, intellectual victim of bullying is perhaps the quintessential Stuart Murdoch song, which pretty much makes it the quintessential Belle and Sebastian song - even if it was written way back in 1995, before the band even got together. Recordings of this have been bouncing around in MP3 format for years, so its appearance on a record has been eagerly awaited since their early days. This stands out as the only seriously unhappy song on the album, and also as one of the best. It receives a lush orchestral treatment here, in sharp contrast to the near-solo bootleg version some of us had downloaded. It works remarkably well.
When will you realise that it never pays
To be smarter than teachers
Smarter than most boys?
Shut your mouth, start kicking the football
Bang on the teeth, you're off for a week boy...
A distinctly cynical song about love in general, with a questionably sincere religious message.
If you find yourself caught in love
Say a prayer to the man above
You should thank him for every day you pass
Thank him for saving your sorry ass.
Unaccountably named after the former Catchphrase presenter and alleged comedian Roy Walker, this is a fast and groovy number about memories and aimless existence, with Stevie taking the lead vocal spot.
I wandered all night, I wondered all night about you
I've been here for years just wandering around the neighbourhood
With a slightly echoey, electronic feel to it, the closing track sounds like it's had more production go into it than any of the others - but surprisingly, this isn't the work of Trevor Horn, who apparently didn't like it much.
I was feeling like a loser
You said "Hey, you've still got me..."
Dear Catastrophe Waitress was released by Rough Trade Records on October 6, 2003. It has its own small but rather nifty website at www.dearcatastrophewaitress.com, from which some of the information in this review was drawn. As well as notes on the songs it has sound clips, and a slideshow of comedy cafe catastrophe photos.
*Believe it or not, this isn't hyperbole. I counted them.