I’ve always underrated Belle & Sebastian. In ’97, If You’re Feeling Sinister won this poll. I had it behind (among other things) Funcrusher Plus, Be Here Now, and the Dubstar singles collection. I’ve come to count Dear Catastrophe Waitress among the two or three best albums released this decade. It was #5 on my ’03 list (Her Majesty The Decemberists was #2. I guess I was really down on “Lord Anthony” that day.) The Life Pursuit, winner of the ’06 poll, didn’t make my list at all. I still don’t think it’s one of the group’s hotter sets, but consider this: I have spun Ys, my #7 album, exactly zero times since Poll day 2006. Life Pursuit has been in heavy rotation (along with all the other B&S albums) in my house since I picked up my copy at Tunes.
So am I at it again?
The year’s most appealing album was also its most audacious: God Help The Girl, the imaginary soundtrack to an equally-imaginary film by Stuart Murdoch. If Sinister felt like a sudden, welcome break from the relentless midrange guitar nonsense that ruined pop in the ’90s, GHTG is even more of an outlier: an album loaded with ostentatious musicianship and boisterous personality, released to a college rock demimonde that has had little time for either lately. The college rock is now a druggy, underproduced, inarticulate mess; that’s part of its appeal. Murdoch’s new recordings are as tight and bright and crisply-illustrated as candy bar wrappers. In the early years of the decade — back when blueberry boats were still in vogue, I mean — its ornamentation and comprehensive storyboarding wouldn’t have been astonishing. In 2009, God Help The Girl sounded radical.
A surprising (to me) number of B&S diehards slept on this set. They might have been turned off by the devotional-sounding name, or the two recycled tracks from Life Pursuit, or prior bad experience with the band’s imaginary soundtrack to Todd Solondz’s not-so-imaginary Storytelling, or Murdoch’s insistence in interviews that this was something other than a Belle & Sebastian album with a female singer upfront. Only that’s Richard Colburn on drums, and the great Bobby Kildea on bass, and Chris “Beans” Geddes bouncing away on the electric piano. Stevie Jackson funks out on the guitar and contributes a fairly good song, just as he does on all the other Belle & Sebastian albums. Murdoch doesn’t sing, except for the songs where he does. The lyrics are about sexually-ambiguous and bookish students in the city (likely Glasgow) who struggle with romantic relationships, eating disorders, and the pains of being pure at heart — as they have been on every B&S set since Tigermilk. There’s even a soft-focus picture of a chick on the cover. So, yeah, it’s a Belle & Sebastian album.
And the female singer upfront isn’t just anybody. For reasons I don’t understand, Murdoch has attempted to obscure this, circulating the story that he’d assembled a girl group by anonymously placing “musician wanted” ads on the Internet. There are many voices on God Help The Girl, and I’m willing to believe that a few of them were waiver-wire pickups; you can pad out a championship team like that. However, the Girl herself is no stranger — astute B&S completists will recognize Catherine Ireton’s face from the front of the White Collar Boy EP. And upon close inspection, the “girl group” turns out to be a bit of a conceit: Ireton takes many of the songs herself, handling lead and backing vocals with equal confidence. Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy and Asya from Smoosh drop in to portray characters in Murdoch’s narrative, but Ireton steals those songs, too.
These Poll designations are all subjective, of course, and if you didn’t like Ireton’s vocals at all, I can’t say I’d be surprised. She has absolutely zero in common with any other singer on any other album released in muffled old 2009. She refuses to slur any of her syllables; instead, she articulates every consonant, pausing over her “r”s and “p”s and marking each glottal stop precisely. She sings chromatic runs, like she’s Jenny Lind or somebody from the last turn of the century. She carefully invests every word — right down to the conjunctions — with personality and meaning; throughout the album, she sounds almost unbearably awake. She gets all of Murdoch’s jokes. Were Henry Higgins a voter in Critics Poll 2009, I am confident he’d list Catherine Ireton as Best Singer.
This presents a problem for Murdoch’s storytelling: the more command Ireton demonstrates, the less she has in common with the typical aimless B&S narrators. This disjunction may torpedo the film project. But I’m not a moviegoer, so I don’t care. I’m just glad Murdoch finally found a foil who could jump him out of his routine — and maybe even make fun of him a bit in the process. Ireton may not be “Eve”, the hospitalized main character of the story that accompanies God Help The Girl, but she’s completely believable as a funny, literate ingenue with a desperate desire to get the hell out of a gray university town.
I placed the album third. Really, nobody had any chance against my #1 — that set went straight into my bloodstream. Max Bemis’s last set (which also topped my list) was meant to be an intervention in an age-old fight between establishmentarians and the kids whose lives they casually ruin; this one, I am convinced, was made especially for me. But I’ve also listed God Help The Girl behind the latest from a singer-songwriter whose debt to Belle & Sebastian is greater than Colin Meloy’s. The reasons feel familiar to me: like all B&S sets, God Help The Girl is uneven; it rehashes old ideas; some of the other girls aren’t too impressive. The jazz-orchestral instrumentals (especially “Unified Theory”) are time-killers. At times the project does feel like one of those Woody Allen vehicles where the director casts a bunch of nubile Hollywood starlets in leading roles so he can have a legal excuse to do nude scenes with them. We’ve always known that Stuart Murdoch likes to surround himself with pretty girls. Sometimes lightning strikes: one of those girls proves to be more than just a fantasy. If you’re very lucky, she might even show you that she’s the mack, and you’re just along for the ride.
As for Ireton herself, all bets are off. She might get shipped back to Cork, never to be heard from again. She might put out dazzling records of her own, or she might decide to front some sadly-generic folk-rock project. Murdoch might pull a Carl Newman and find a place for her in his band. Or maybe that movie will get made, and she’ll prove to be every bit as revelatory on the big screen as she is on compact disc. The story of Eve that accompanies God Help The Girl is, if you’ll forgive me, a comprehensive encapsulation of everything that’s bad about Belle & Sebastian: on the printed page, tales of young girls lost in the system start to feel very much like fodder for the Television for Women. Ireton saves Stuart Murdoch from his worst excesses. She may go right on saving him. One way or another, I hope to be hearing from her for a long, long time.
One last word about #6, and then it’s on to the list, I promise. Many believe that since Colin Meloy is never going to top the “Apology Song”, he may as well hang them up and go home. I prefer to say that since he’s never going to top the “Apology Song”, he may as well attempt to craft neo-prog epics about mystical beasts on the Scottish taiga. The Hazards Of Love ends like Titanic, and of course that’s not so good. But I love everything else about the album: the over-the-top ELP organ breaks, and Tull sludge guitar, the Strawbs-y harpsichord, the Annie Haslam art-folk melodies, the subcontracted performances from Shara Worden and Becky Stark, the absurd theatrical aspirations, the little kids who play the ghosts of the Rake’s victims. I don’t even mind that Meloy hogs all the good songs; unlike Murdoch, he didn’t change the name of the band on the sleeve of his concept set, so he knows he’s singing to the initiated. It doesn’t deserve the top spot, but it might deserve a laser show. In 2009, that’s enough.
Best Album of 2009:
1. Say Anything — Say Anything
2. Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern – Pram Town
3. God Help The Girl
4. Jamie T — Kings & Queens
5. Drake — So Far Gone
6. The Decemberists — The Hazards Of Love
7. Cruiserweight — Big Bold Letters
8. Ace Enders & A Million Different People — When I Hit The Ground
9. Metric — Fantasies
10. The Dangerous Summer — Reach For The Sun
11. The Roadside Graves — My Son’s Home
12. Why? — Eskimo Snow
13. Mos Def — The Ecstatic
14. Holly Williams — Here With Me
15. Tanya Morgan — Brooklynati
16. Paramore — Brand New Eyes
17. Lights — The Listening
18. A Fine Frenzy — Bomb In A Birdcage
19. Future Of The Left — Travels With Myself And Another
20. Slaughterhouse — Slaughterhouse
Album I didn’t know where to place:
Every Avenue’s Picture Perfect. Since critics are snobs, most do not bother with the corporate rock. Those of us who do will often glibly demand of our faceless favorites that they sprout personalities and shoehorn some specifics into their generic heartache numbers. Be careful what you wish for. David Ryan Strauchmann (now just David Ryan) used to be just another lonely masturbator, wanking himself asleep in his empty room. A year later, he has morphed into every woman’s nightmare: a glib, winking, self-entitled emo Lothario comfortable leading the gang vocals about the “trap” between his girlfriend’s legs. After the ’08 release ofShh… Just Go With It (boy, does that title sound sinister in retrospect), I likened Strauchmann to Huey Lewis. With Picture Perfect, the comparison still holds — Huey was a smug motherfucker, too. The casual cruelty of “I Forgive You” and “Tell Me I’m A Wreck” — in which the singer deadpans the vicious breakup couplet “I guess we just want different things/I want space, you want a diamond ring” — make the romantic “don’t go” power ballads feel all the more emotionally manipulative. But I cannot front: I always ask artists to inscribe a specific time and place in their recordings, and Strauchmann really does get you right in the middle of a tawdry Midwestern pick-up scene. You can almost smell the onion rings coming from the Applebee’s kitchen. No, it isn’t a triumph, and it’s not better than Slaughterhouse or A Fine Frenzy, but Picture Perfect is a weirdly compelling album that does reflect genuine growth. He’s drawing characters and establishing settings. His knack for rafter-raising melodies hasn’t deserted him, either.
Most unfairly-maligned album:
Til The Casket Drops. The latest Clipse got body-slammed because it isn’t as good as Lord Willin’ or Hell Hath No Fury. I have to believe there is a double-standard operating here, or perhaps our expectations for rappers are higher than they are for college rockers. Those who came for verbal acrobatics from Pusha T and got nothing but intermittently-hot flossing anthems are pardoned their disappointment. But listen again: it’s Malice who makes this album indispensable. His Christian conversion — the first convincing one in rap music in a blue moon — makes his verses a fascinating counterpoint to his brother’s. Also, “Door Man” is off the hook.
Elvis Costello’s Secret, Profane, And Sugarcane. With nothing left to prove, MacManus tries to pull off musical miracles. (Just for kicks, I mean.) Here, he gathers the detritus that washed up onshore when his musical about P.T. Barnum foundered on the rocks of its own (welcome) conceptual overreach, some outtakes from the pseudo-country set The Delivery Man, a quick revision of a not-so-good tune from All This Useless Beauty, and a few new originals about old obsessions. Noted accomplice T-Bone Burnett attempts to harmonize these show tunes, folk tunes, and standard-issue Costello tunes into something resembling an album. He does so by recording them all with a bluegrass band, coaxing a few stellar performances out of Costello’s whiskey-strangled throat, and I will be damned if he doesn’t almost turn the trick. Costello threatens to push into new territory, too, hinting in his lyrics at connections between prison, slavery, 19th century propriety, hidden shame, and the myth of the American West. If he’d started writing from scratch, he might’ve come up with another classic, or at least another Momofuku. As it is, it’s a frustrating set, and a compendium of interesting dead ends. As B-sides compilations go, it’s one of the bravest.
Best Single of 2009:
1. Metric — “Gimme Sympathy”
2. Owl City — “Fireflies”
3. The Blackout — “The Warning (S.O.S)”
4. All-Time Low — “Weightless”
5. Gucci Mane — “Lemonade”
6. The Dangerous Summer — “The Permanent Rain”
7. Big Boi & Gucci Mane — “Shine Blockas”
8. Camera Obscura — “Honey In The Sun”
9. Panic! At The Disco — “New Perspective”
10. Kid Cudi — “Day ‘N’ Nite”
11. Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”
12. Micachu & The Shapes — “Golden Phone”
13. Ilyas — “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die”
14. God Help The Girl — “Come Monday Night”
15. Brandi Carlile — “Dreams”
16. Ne-Yo — “Mad”
17. The Leftovers — “Telephone Operator”
18. Every Avenue — “Tell Me I’m A Wreck”
19. Pitbull — “I Know You Want Me”
20. New Boyz — “You’re A Jerk”
Best Album Title:
Mum — Sing Along To Songs You Don’t Know
Best Album Cover:
The Best In Town, by the Blackout. Help me out, though: is it a human ascending from a hell town, or a straight-up evil exaltation? Works for me either way.
Best Liner Notes And Packaging:
Say Anything. The dumpy kid on the cover does battle with Max Bemis throughout the booklet. Max is the villain, see, and the kid is the superhero. They use as many toys from his bedroom as they can. (Yes, I have left the pronoun intentionally unclear.) My favorite band shot was the one on the back of I’m Going Away: the Friedberger siblings, sitting together on a sofa in a stark hi-rise living room decorated with African art.
Most Welcome Surprise:
The Hazards Of Love. I figured “The Island” was about as far into the prog-folk as those guys were willing to go; I mean, they’re crowd-pleasers at heart. I didn’t think Colin Meloy had the stomach to alienate his fraternity fanbase. Now I have to believe that they’re all in, and that we’ll eventually look at The Crane Wife as a transitional album. Welcome to the cabal, Colin.
Before I Self-Destruct. I was the only person on the globe who expected it to be great. I was wrong, the world was right. Not for the first time, either.
Album that opens the strongest
Slaughterhouse. I don’t think any of the four emcees pause to catch their breaths until the second song. Then they just keep on passing the baton in a circle, running lap after lap at full speed. Eventually they hit the skits, the lactic acid catches up with them, and they all get cramps. Until then, it’s a hell of a race.
Album that ends the strongest
Eskimo Snow peaks with “Blackest Purse”, the penultimate song, and probably the best thing Why? has ever recorded. A thrillingly bitter digestif follows.
Song of the Year
After …Is A Real Boy dropped in 2004, some well-meaning grownup critic hung the “new Bob Dylan” tag on Max Bemis. I have come to see this as an insult to Max. The newly-converted Dylan stuck us with the flat and humorless Saved, which still plays as a pretty good advertisement for the Devil. Say Anything’s “Cemetery”, on the other hand, records a conversion experience that, from the sound of it, had to have been akin to getting thrown through a plate-glass window. Throughout the song, Bemis sounds absolutely astonished by his depth of feeling; like all the greatest Christian badasses from Augustine to C.S. Lewis to Brooke Fraser, he has come to realize that faith gives the ultimate middle finger to bureaucratic authority. He inhabits his belief as an act of defiance — and in so doing, he liberates himself. Christianity, as Chesterton points out, is the only world religious system with the guts to make God a rebel, an underdog, and a lifeline for reprobates, a leading light for inveterate punks, provocateurs and mischief-makers, and anybody angling against the establishment. Better still, his new wife (almost certainly the instrument of his conversion) sings backup on the choruses. Sherri DuPree is the “you” of the second verse, the true believer who convinces Bemis; later, stuck in the lake of fire, condemned but personality intact, it hardly matters if he’s shouting Jesus’s name or hers. God knows the important thing has already happened: he’s been reborn, flamethrower mouth intact, more himself than ever. Just like C.S. Lewis promised. Thanks, Max, for letting us in on it.
Okay, I have reached the strange word limit that this software system imposes. I’ll pick this up tomorrow.