When Belle & Sebastian released a U.K., nonalbum single called "This Is Just a Modern Rock Song" last fall, the coy smarm of the title seemed unduly kitschy--even for them. This was a band that had taken unerring pretension to a whole new level, elevating the preciousness of its French radio melodies, chamber-music confections, and scenester in-jokes to an almost mythical plane. Their stateside hipster hit of an album, last year's The Boy With the Arab Strap (Matador), included a soul-ballad prayer for a phone call from Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein and a languid reminisce for a female interviewer from the twee-pop digest Chickfactor.
But "This Is Just" dwarfed those attempts at cheeky career climbing. The song slowly built its distant acoustic-guitar strum and moldy bassline into a soaring suite of clarion horns and a white-gospel chorus--inspired, perhaps, by the Mamas and the Papas or the first few bars of the Velvets' "Head Held High." The tune culminated in the line "This is just a modern rock song/This is just a sorry lament/We're four boys in our corduroys/We're not terrific but we're competent." Gratingly cute yet overpoweringly elegiac, that. Never had B&S so perfectly split the difference between cringe-inducing affect and titanic beauty.
It's a remarkable thing to behold when a band blows up its most saliently dubious feature to the point of transcendence. Still, it's not surprising that Belle & Sebastian's members are now backing away from that conceptual peak to atomize their sound just when their cult is blossoming into a culture. (For more on that development, see an excellent May 4 piece in Salon magazine chronicling the cuddle-core festival the band hosted in rural England this spring.) Cellist Isobel Campbell has taken the group's Velvety folk delicateness heavenward with her offshoot the Gentle Waves and their album The Green Fields of Foreverland (Jeepster). And, while bassist Stuart David's sample-based side project, Looper, may seem like a departure, it, too, is a microcosmic study of the shy, dreamy insularity and voracious narcissism that Belle and their twentysomething fans cling to like a tattered teddy bear.
A collaboration between David, his wife Karn, and their visual-artist friend Alan Brown, Looper uses buoyant Land of the Loop-type bedroom electronica on their album Up a Tree (Sub Pop) to frame songs about young, distracted layabouts struggling to stay age 24 for the rest of their lives. With a typewriter tapping the beat, "Impossible Things #2" drops a tale of two pen pals-turned-sweethearts who rush home from their unsuccessful dates with each other to scribble down all the things they wish they could have said. "Burning Flies" is about some misfit soul content to spend his early 20s wandering around town with a magnifying glass in search of helpless critters to sizzle, even as his public-school chums get busy with the birds and the bees. Throughout the album, kids who should be considering long-term employment prospects take to the hills to waste their Wednesdays drinking beer, flying kites, and sneaking into outdoor plays.
David's mostly spoken vocals suggest the mind state of some postgraduate depressive stuck inside on a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do but browse his bookshelves, finger his records, and read his own journal. Of course, convincing you to spend your hard-earned lunch money on this kind of slacker romanticism might take a somewhat harder sell. So think of it this way: A little body movin' (even if it's a very little) can turn the most maudlin pop moper into a dappled dreamer. Let Looper sink in and the band's navel soundtrack starts working like soul music--an effete posh-boy pop steeped in pianos, harmonicas, and other Motown devices. Looper brings out Belle & Sebastian's romance with the drowsier side of the British northern soul that Saint Etienne synthetically adapted for the Nineties. And while these tracks don't work up an outright "dance" beat compelling enough to wrap your hips around, you can trance to them easily enough, and they've got lolling, billowy ambiance to burn.
When David's Glaswegian mumble joins with these shifting breaks and beats, Looper's dandified take on jungle toasting sounds diffidently fey enough to almost seem, in a roundabout way, tough: Call it ragga for college kids in cardigans. Which makes it all the more fitting that the punchiest, grooviest thing here, "Ballad of Ray Suzuki," is built around a sample of some punter scornfully repeating, "Yer a looper," as if he's stopping David on the street to smash his sampler and kick his pansy ass. It evokes the kind of rockist chauvinism that Belle & Sebastian stand up against by amping up their own cuteness until it resounds as bombastically as a mallet across Angus Young's forehead. If Looper isn't as mythical as Belle's curve, it's quite a bit more fun--modern rock be damned.
Looper will make an in-store appearance at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, July 14 at Let It Be Records in Minneapolis; (612) 339-7439. They'll perform later the same evening at the 400 Bar in Minneapolis with opener Kitty Craft; (612) 332-2903.
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