Belle and Sebastian still bring their A game (CD review)

Belle and Sebastian
Belle & Sebastian Write about Love
Matador, 2010

Despite a number of media outlets’ attempts to make principal songwriter Stuart Murdoch into the monolithic frontman of Glasgow’s Belle and Sebastian to the exclusion from the spotlight of other personnel, it certainly doesn’t appear to have gone to Murdoch’s head. The group’s eighth album shows no signs of B&S losing a strong sense of collective input.

Indeed, on Write about Love there are a number of vocalists in contention for the spotlight. In addition to Murdoch, band member Sarah Martin contributes vocals, supplying the lead-off track “I Didn’t see it Coming” with a winsome foil for Murdoch’s tenor. What’s more, the LP features two guest vocalists: Grammy favorite Norah Jones and actress Carey Mulligan. The former’s appearance on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” is a gutsy move, as Jones’ inimitably sultry pipes could easily seem an intrusive element in B&S’s delicately shaped chamber pop aesthetic. But, happily for all parties involved, she fits right in, supplying a bit of Bacharach-esque balladry that is a welcome visitation: one could see the band fruitfully collaborating with her again in the future. Mulligan’s appearance is less distinguished, but she turns in a serviceable performance on the title track.

The album’s arrangements encompass a variety of the group’s well-tested approaches, ranging from 60s mod and soul to twee pop with the occasional chamber orchestra touches. Tony Hoffer produces; he’s helped the group to bring these myriad threads together into cohesively presented, often memorably crafted, recordings. The atmosphere is a bit less charged than 2003′s Trevor Horn produced Dear Catastrophe Waitress and even Hoffer’s first album with B&S, 2006′s The Life Pursuit. But in some respects this actually proves beneficial, allowing the band to reconnect with the easy grace of their earlier work.

Despite a more laid back vibe, Write about Love features a terrific single, the equal of “Step into my Office:” “I Want the World to Stop.” And while it’s likely that you won’t want to stop humming its hook, the record features plenty more songs possessing both charm and substance. Recommended.

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