The band Belle and Sebastian, hailing from Glasgow, Scotland, was an indie fan and critic’s dream. Its debut album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, slipped in under the music radar. The album was loaded with gorgeously crafted pop songs filled with sly and lovelorn lyrics not seen since the heyday of the Smiths. In fact, the band was often mentioned in the same breath as those legends of the 80s.
Their next album, The Boy With the Arab Strap, was a good follow-up. While not as filled with gems as Sinister, the good songs had great hooks and more and more of the band got their chances to shine, coming out from under sing-songwriter-leader Stuart Murdoch’s shadow.
With these two albums, Belle and Sebastian built up a huge cult following. It was a band people shyly mentioned to friends, not wanting to share with anyone. With Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like A Peasant (Matador), already with a title like that warning bells start going off, expectations were high for an album that would keep building on the strengths of the past or at least offer more of the same.
Sadly, as often happens, expectations come crashing down faster than the Hindenburg when the eager fan pops this into his stereo. Instead of gorgeous, catchy pop songs, the songs turn out to be the worst of 70s AOR pop. Take all the annoying, sappy, schlocky, parts of songs by Carole King, Billy Joel, Elton John, the Carpenters, combine them all and one gets most of the songs on this album, one of the biggest letdowns of the year.
An album should start strong, to catch the listener’s attention and pull him in. Belle and Sebastian are apparently hoping listeners will be pulled in simply on anticipation alone because “I Fought In A War,” yet another pretentious title in the same vein as the album’s, is an awful opener. Murdoch croons over a lazy, lethargic folk tune that is like a parody of anti-war anthems of the 60s.
The album continues its slide down from this point. Most of the songs are so loaded with strings and horns they begin to grate on your ears as they pile up. One quickly flips through songs like “Beyond the Sunrise” and “Waiting For the Moon to Rise,” hoping for a hook to catch one’s ear or a standout lyric. Sadly, none are forthcoming.
The music is lazy and turgid, something you’d hear while sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. Murdoch often sings in a voice that sounds he couldn’t even be bothered to wake up that day. Lyrics, which used to be filled with mundane details that helped make the songs sound more real, now are just mundane and lazy to match the music.
There are a couple of decent songs buried among the elevator music that fills Fold Your Hands. “The Model” is reminiscent of the toe-tapping songs Belle and Sebastian used to do. However, instead of sounding catchy and fun, it just sounds like the band going through the motions. The essential pop spark is missing. “Don’t Leave the Light On Baby,” has a cool “Superstition”/”I Feel The Earth Move” organ part that gives the song a bit of a funk feel to it. A bit is the key term though, these guys drip with whiteness.
Still, even that bit of spark and effort helps to lift this song above the rest of the blandness. “Woman’s Realm” is another upbeat, catchy affair that harks more back to past Belle and Sebastian glories than help move the band forward. Still, plodding through the album, the listener latches on to these few above-average tracks just to have something to keep from using the CD as an overpriced coaster.
Who knows why Fold Your Hands, which could have cemented Belle and Sebastian’s status as indie gods, went horribly astray? One hopes it isn’t because the band is taking its fans for granted and is just getting lazy. Usually a band takes longer than three albums to get to that stage. Still, all it takes is a listen, or two at the most, to get a profound sense of disappointment. Before, the listener wanted to curl up with them on a rainy day. Now, one just wants to yank them all outside and smack them around.