Indie darlings serve up surprisingly good electronic album shocker. Well, this is a surprise.
Belle And Sebastian aren’t your usual Electronic Sound fodder, admittedly. But the rumble about this, the ninth studio outing from the Scots indie darlings and their first album in five years, suggested they might be wandering onto our patch. Recorded in Atlanta with producer Ben H Allen III, whose credits include Gnarls Barkley and Animal Collective, confirmed the rumours. A proper case of getorfmoiland, right?
The opener, ‘Nobody’s Empire’, suggests we might not be popping a couple of carts into the double barrel just yet, or at least until the intro is over. An insistent warm kick-drum up front, the swelling of strings, some gentle synth stabs, a piano tinkling away over the top… for about 30 seconds, after which it’s indie business as usual. The following track, ‘Allie’, a straightforward ba-ba-bah-ba-jingle-jangle jaunt, compounds the initial disappointment.
But just as you’re reaching for the shooter and rounding up the dogs, it happens. ‘The Party Line’. A low funk bass rumble, handclaps, squelches, swirling keys, a thudding four-to-the-floor, it is a total banger, one of those tunes you hear and wonder who is this? The treats continue through ‘The Power Of Three’, which throws up a St Etienne-style 60s undertow thanks to Sarah Martin’s breathy vocal. ‘The Cat With The Cream’ is a tiptoeing, string-backed bewitcher and then we’re slap-bang back into rollicking electronic territory with the rattlingly good ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, which comes on like a skew-whiff Pet Shop Boys. It’s a tune that belts along, locking itself down nicely and building to its conclusion just shy of seven minutes. It’s like they’ve been in this mode forever and the same goes for the gentle quirk of ‘Play For Today’, another track that lands at around seven minutes.
We’ll duck the French-feel café bar busk of ‘The Everlasting Muse’, as pleasing as it is, but the percussion-led ‘Perfect Couples’ is much more like the sort of track you’d expect if B&S went electronic. It sounds so comfortable in its shoes – the lyrical skip in its step, the jittery funk guitar riff, the sturdily low b-line, it’s all somehow familiar. There’s more than a passing nod here to Orange Juice and the way they twisted and turned to give their solid pop-mongering a dancier edge. History repeating, then.
Strip out the first two tracks, ditch the closing ‘Ever Had A Little Faith’, start the album with ‘The Party Line’, and we really would be saluting this album for having nut bowls full like Christmas. And while it’s perhaps unfair to suggest they’ve bottled it by serving up a clutch of trad B&S tunes, you can’t help but admire the curve of the ball they’re throwing. So often bands of Belle And Sebastian’s standing would be weary of exploring a sound at odds with their reputation, but this is a real artists-at-work record, one that could have easily fallen between two stools. That it didn’t, that for the most part they’ve turned in a hugely enjoyable electronic romp, is proper hats off stuff.