The Hunt Is On

The clues to Belle & Sebastian's treasure hunt

In short, the band just couldn't win, its music growing ever more obsolete as the years went by. After reviving, exemplifying, and totally fucking nailing the '90s twee/ chamber pop movement, it seemed that Belle & Sebastian simply couldn't evolve. That is, until now.

Dear Catastrophe Waitress -- the new record, which doesn't hit shelves till October -- is a triumph. It's nothing like anything you've ever heard from this band. Rather than simply taking a tiny slice of the chamber pop pie, Murdoch's lined up a pie-eating contest, and the sweet, tasty mess is all over his face. On this album you hear echoes of everything from the Beach Boys to General Public to the Jam to Billy Joel to the Monkees to The Brady Bunch. No shit. Whereas previous albums, even Sinister, were mere essays on pop music, this one's a 10-volume set.

The opening track, "Step Into My Office, Baby," is all the schizophrenic proof you need. What starts as a swaggering shuffle combining the best bits of the Stray Cats and Elliott Smith melts, halfway through, into an a cappella choral duet before building into the lost showstopping number from the Who's Tommy. This tune is followed by the '70s soul of "If She Wants Me," the rollicking '60s jangle of the Sergio Mendes-inspired "You Don't Send Me," and a song called "Stay Loose," which -- I am not fucking with you -- is the '80s-born love child of Rick Springfield and the Police, complete with chanky reverberated guitars and a chorus every bit as catchy as "I wish that I had Jessie's girl!" Remember, folks, this is Belle & Sebastian we're talking about.

Dash to the alley where Spade's bowman 
was murdered for film's most famous fowl.
Dash to the alley where Spade's bowman was murdered for film's most famous fowl.
The sky was falling, so I went out for the 
best pancakes in San Francisco.
The sky was falling, so I went out for the best pancakes in San Francisco.
She sang to them, and every year the 
survivors meet at the watery altar.
She sang to them, and every year the survivors meet at the watery altar.

The record is almost absurd in its ambition. It's as if Murdoch was swept up from his gloomy surroundings by a tornado -- a maelstrom swirling with Hammond organs and French horns, choral singers and an orchestral string section, the cast from every '60s sitcom as well as Frankie and Annette, Tommy Tune, Al Green -- and plopped down in some kind of musical Oz, a strange, new world that sparkles with both wonder and falsity. Honestly, you have to hear it to believe it.

And so whether this treasure hunt is a publicity stunt or not is irrelevant. What matters is that Belle & Sebastian fans have something they can be proud of again, an album that's probably going to wind up being one of the best records released this year. As corny as it sounds, that's the truest treasure of them all. Given that you'll have to wait a couple of months to hear it, I'd say a pair of free tickets and a chance to make song requests backstage (ask for "Stay Loose" -- trust me) is a stellar reason to go a-hunting. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but I am saying it'll be worth it.

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