I want to acknowledge Dear Catastrophe Waitress
as an "achievement" -- really, I do -- but hey, building a 1:10 scale model of the Taj Mahal out of popsicle sticks is also an "achievement", and I wouldn't really be impressed by that. Admittedly, the album's Trevor Horn-ified polish is pretty damn shocking, especially if you've listened to Tigermilk
in the last few days. It just takes a few spins to realize that it's the same sort of shock you get from running into a newly-divorced middle-aged dad with a shiny new Miata and a fresh head of hair: you're fascinated for a few minutes, but before long you want to ask, "Where is your shame
If your tastes are fairly broad, you may remember the brouhaha that ensued a few years ago when The Sisters of Mercy alienated and offended a lot of their fans by dumping any supporting act that was "too goth" for their rejiggered sensibilities. In much the same manner, Dear Catastrophe Waitress seems custom-designed to madden Belle and Sebastian's staunchest, most consistently cardigan-clad supporters. Why else would Stuart Murdoch and his recently-downsized band enlist the services of producer Horn, who's currently riding high on the success of synthetic Russian lesbo-pop duo TaTu? Don't tell me they needed Horn for the bargain-basement synth-brass that taints "You Don't Send Me", or the watery spring reverb that drizzles behind "Roy Walker". Perhaps he suggested the latter's bouncing ping-pong ball ending?
Honestly, once you've named an entire album after a line from a Drew Barrymore film, no-one's going to stop you from writing a song called "Piazza, New York Catcher" (and besides, once you get past the fact that Belle and Sebastian are writing about -- shudder -- American sports, it's actually a pretty entertaining song. Didn't the world need a sports-oriented, folk-pop version of Prince's "Controversy"?). Of all the possible directions for B&S's career to take (most of which involved gradually vanishing up their own earnest, self-effacing arses), the Sudden Burst of Assertiveness scenario is actually the most appealing. "Step Into My Office, Baby" initially seems almost vulgarly poppy, but the group's bookishly lewd lyrical sensibility is unchanged. Ditto the title track, and the bouncy "Wrapped Up In Books", and the Elvis Costello-esque "Stay Loose"; they're all the stuff of wish-fulfillment -- the musical equivalent of returning to the local beach after a few weeks of using the Jack LaLanne Universal Gym, finding the bully who kicked sand in your face, and treating him to a half-pound sandburger and a super-sized order of sand-fries. Murdoch, finally free to take charge of his band, has done so in spades, and the result is a confident, assured affair...that, to many listeners, will seem utterly out of character. Perhaps that bothers you, and perhaps it doesn't.
If you're content to hear B&S's quietly clever lyrical perspective thriving in a more immediate, production-intensive environment, you'll find Dear Catastrophe Waitress to be as empowering and inspirational as one of Oprah's "makeover" shows. If you've always assumed that they were speaking only to you, you'll feel betrayed (because they've got to be speaking to someone else here, right? They wouldn't do this to you.). You may even ask yourself why Belle and Sebastian felt they needed to make this record. While I'm a long way from being a staunch, inflexible indie-rocker, I'm wondering much the same thing.