Belle and Sebastian: Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Belle and Sebastian

Dear Catastrophe Waitress

Rough Trade

This is not a modern rock song. This is just a sorry lament. Not "sorry" like the regret that Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch expresses to every argyle-socked malcontent who ever cried into the pages of a Dostoevsky novel. "Sorry" like pathetic: No matter how hard the king of indie-rock bathos tries to empathize with disaffected bookworms on his band's latest album, he just ends up condescending to the delicate souls in his songs. Addressing a math whiz who is spurned by his classmates, Murdoch sings, "It doesn't pay to be smarter than teachers, smarter than most boys." He's more right than he knows.

Belle and Sebastian have always played Hipster Bingo with their listeners, calling out the names of obscure music zines, indie documentaries, and French comics in their lyrics. In the past, that name-dropping was a brilliant upset of Scotland's caste system, a sly display of admiration for the secret knowledge of the launderette workers, cab drivers, and grocery store clerks who reveled in such cultural touchstones. As the title implies, Dear Catastrophe Waitress continues to dissect the inner lives of the working class, comparing nobodies with the literary heroes of John Fowles and C.S. Lewis. But while Murdoch makes each of his subjects into an open book, there's only a cartoon inside.

"Step into My Office Baby," the most cloying track, tells of the inappropriate advance a boss makes toward her secretary. But its winking '60s dance-party vibe is so over the top that you expect a mob of go-go dancing Laugh-In stars to pull off a deus ex machina and break up the whole shebang. That smugness may stem from producer Trevor Horn, who made T.A.T.U. into the most famous team of animatronic lesbians in pop history. Here, one senses that Horn simply seized upon the preciousness of Belle and Sebastian's music and opened up its Technicolor display like one of the fabled umbrellas of Cherbourg. By the time the album blows up into a full-orchestra musical on the Bollywood-tinged title track, Murdoch can't help but sound sarcastic. "I'm sorry if he hits you with a full can of Coke/It's no joke," he tells an abused restaurant server in a singsong lilt. A haughty tone for a man who was a janitor before he became a pop star.