Friday, April 1, 2011

5 Star Corner: Belle and Sebastian - This Is Just a Modern Rock Song (Jeepster)

Oh Belle and Sebastian, I could never stay mad at you...

Sure in the years since this was released you've fallen on hard times. Neither Fold your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant nor Storytelling were as warmly received as the untouchable streak you enjoyed from 96-98, and even the albums hailed as being your return to form have left me, well, frustrated. Even angry at times. Hell, my review of Dear Catastrophe Waitress is one of my more venemous screeds...but I can't stay mad at you even after that crushing disappointment. You know why?

This EP is why. Hell, the title track alone forgives so much water treading, so much overly cutesy pandering, so much overbearing 'cleverness.' It's remarkable that despite how involved and production-indebted it is that "This Is Just a Modern Rock Song" sounds like it was hammered out in one take, just a lark that the band took one day in the studio that wound up resulting in their best overall song. Everything about it feels completely effortless and spontaneous; the entry of the various extra instruments during each of the climaxes has no calculation to it at all in my ears, it just feels like a split-second decision by that player to jump in. Even Murdoch's lyrics, which often seemed overworked and stilted even at their best feel much looser than normal. They're still quotable and clever - not 'clever' like a lot of his later material - but thy somehow seem more genuine this time. It probably helps that he gives the song's best passage over to Stevie Jackson, whose much less effete performance works just as many wonders as Murdoch's resurgent harmony does in the penultimate stanza.

Yet for all that it could just as easily be seenas a heavily calculated 'Belle and Sebastian do Post-Rock!' move. If not that, then at least the sort of one-off genre exercise that EPs are generally made to contain, keep separated from the album that they might stick out from like a sore thumb. The thing is that even if it does feel like the band trying on a different set of clothes to see how they fit, it's still the same basic body underneath. And truthfully, the post-rockier flourishes are what make the song stand out in all the best ways, amplifying the things about B&S that I loved most from this era and giving them room to build and shine. Even the best material from their albums can't compare to the scope that "Modern Rock Song" allows for, and the band use it to their full advantage while still making sure that you never forget who they are. That's why it makes me willing to forgive their recent transgressions; it shows all of the best aspects of the band in one place, and makes me remember exactly why I love them.

But it doesn't stop there, thankfully. One great song, even one as great as the title track, isn't enough to make this EP the sort of full blown classic that makes up for every sin the band committed to tape in the year since. The truth is that unlike the string of EPs they had released the year before, there isn't a duffer in the whole set here. "Slow Graffiti" is everything I love about the title track transposed onto a smaller scale, and while it's no match for the epic sprawl of "Modern Rock Song" it's still a highlight in the band's catalog. "The Gate" might feature Isobel Campbell's best performance in the band's history over top of a similarly spontaneous feeling number. Even "I Know Where the Summer Goes," which is about as close to the 'overly cute' side of the band's personality as the EP gets, is buoyed by a great set of lyrics and a breezy, charming performance. They may not merit the full two-paragraph treatment I afforded the title track, but they're all examples of the band at their peak in various guises. More importantly, they all maintain a similar mood, making for a much more cohesive statement than...well, any other B&S release.

So yes, Belle and Sebastian, I forgive you. You did this, and that makes up for everything you've squandered since. That's how good it is. [10/10]

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