Thursday, October 14th, 2010
Write About Love
Belle & Sebastian and Zeus at Massey Hall in Toronto
Frank YangThere’s hiatuses and there’s hiatuses. The first being the sort where a group needs a break from one another to recharge their batteries, try out new things and eventually, return to one another refreshed and ready for another go; the latter being code for “we’ve split up but don’t want to field questions about so just leave us alone”. For whatever reason, though it was officially for reason the first, when Belle & Sebastian announced they were going on a break following 2006’s The Life Pursuit, I had the dread feeling that the truth was closer to reason the second. Why, I don’t know, but compilation albums and side-projects, however enjoyable on their own merits, don’t always bode well.
So joy was the best word to describe my reaction when word came this Spring that the band’s hiatus was as only as long as some band’s usual between-album gaps and were returning to the studio to record their eighth album. Clearly, I have some bias with regards to the fruits of those sessions – Write About Love, out this week – but I think that even the objective would admit that it’s as strong a record as any they band have released in the second phase (post-Fold Your Hands) of their career. For starters, it immediately adds two songs to any potential best-of career compilation; lead-off track “I Didn’t See It Coming” and first single “I Want The World To Stop”, both of which feature the band in absolute top form in terms of arrangement, musicianship, and the refinement of the Northern soul stylings that has defined their work since “twee” ceased being an appropriate descriptor.
Though those are the clear pinnacles of the record, there’s little in the way of weak spots or filler elsewhere – not something I’d say about any of their last few efforts. On the whole it sounds as though they’ve mellowed a bit and the token attempts to rock out – which never felt quite right – have been shelved in favour of more thoughtful moments that fit much better, not unlike a warm, worn cardigan. Stuart Murdoch’s experimenting with different female vocalists on God Help The Girl also carries over with the presence of Norah Jones on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John” and actress Carey Mulligan on the album’s title track, both bringing something different from usual female vocalist Sarah Martin. Subjectivity demands that everyone has different things they’ll dislike or find wanting about Write About Love – too much of this, not enough of that, WTF Norah Jones – but what’s not up for debate is that eight albums on, Belle & Sebastian are finding ways to keep themselves sounding fresh and interested without tampering with their fundamental strengths and appeal and the world is a better place for it.
So with that out of the way, let’s get to Wednesday night at Massey Hall – the band’s first visit in four and a half years but my second time seeing them in under a fortnight. And while in Vegas their de facto openers were Spoon and Superchunk, and other cities on the tour have gotten Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines or Dean & Britta, Toronto got Toronto’s Zeus. This isn’t a complaint, per se – though ubiquitous on city stages over the past year or so in support of their debut Say Us, I’ve managed to have never seen them live before so though it wasn’t Dean Wareham playing Galaxie 500, it was one thing to check off my to-do list. And I’ll have to see them again, not because they blew me away but because I think I need to give them a second chance to make a first impression. For whatever reason, they weren’t sounding great up there with vocals off-key and noticeable instrumental flubs, and for a band who you could tell is normally super-tight vocally and musically – their ’70s-indebted radio rock style of songwriting demands it – the flaws were particularly conspicuous. Not that the band let it rattle them, if they even noticed – they were totally chilled out on stage and didn’t appear intimidated by the setting in the slightest. When they were on, which was most of the time, they were fine. I just suspect they’re normally a fair bit better.
Unlike Belle & Sebastian’s Vegas show where the band came out of the blocks at full speed, Tuesday’s show started from a standing stop. Leading off with Write‘s quietest number, “Read The Blessed Pages”, they followed up with the title track of the new record delivered with less energy than it deserved, leading me to worry that this might turn out to be a rare off night for both the support and headliners. But as the adage goes, “slow and steady wins the race” so it’s fitting that it was with beloved b-side “The Loneliness Of A Middle Distance Runner”, egged on by the most polite stage rush ever, the show found another gear and set course for greatness. That greatness was realized just one song later with “I Want The World To Stop” which was met with an enthusiasm that one rarely hears for a brand-new song – enthusiasm and dancing. The mass at the foot of the stage was a steady mass of bouncing and swaying and on stage, Murdoch had found his groove and was doing a sort of faux-running man dance, henceforth called “The Stu”, that he’d keep up for pretty much the rest of the show.
And for the rest of the night, it was highlight after highlight. The unexpected orchestral open to “Sukie In The Graveyard” where he pulled a dance partner out of the audience, the half-dozen dancers invited up for “Boy With The Arab Strap” including one girl who couldn’t have been more than 10 that invited herself onstage and stole the show, their well-intentioned butchering of a Kinks cover request, the tossing of Dollarama-sourced, forgot-to-be-autographed footballs into the audience, the wealth of non-album singles and b-sides in the set plus a half verse of “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song” in response to another request (until Stuart forgot the words)… it was simply bliss. Which is why it was strange to look around the balconies and galleries of Massey Hall and see people sitting placid and stony-faced through much of the show – the ovations that followed each song certainly made it sound like the sold-out house was loving it, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. Still, there’d be no staying in one’s seat when an unexpected read of “Simple Things” led into a glorious and technicolour “Sleep The Clock Around” – it was a blast of undiluted aural joy that carried over into the Sinister encore double-shot of “Judy and The Dream Of Horses” and “Me and The Major”. Any fears of a sub-par show from the slow start were beyond unfounded – anywhere Belle & Sebastian go, magic is sure to follow. It’s always nice to be reminded that one of the most important bands of your life are still vital and wonderful after almost 15 years at it. Did I already sort of say that? Well it bears repeating – Belle + Sebastian = love.
Panic Manual, Exclaim, BlogTO, Chart, NOW, The Globe & Mail and eye also have reviews of the show. San Francisco Weekly has an interview with Stuart Murdoch. With their Massey Hall appearance out of the way, Zeus have announced a show a little more their scale on December 3 at the Horseshoe.
Photos: Belle & Sebastian, Zeus @ Massey Hall – October 12, 2010
MP3: Belle & Sebastian – “Write About Love”
MP3: Belle & Sebastian – “Funny Little Frog”
MP3: Belle & Sebastian – “Another Sunny Day”
MP3: Belle & Sebastian – “Take Your Carriage Clock And Shove It”
MP3: Belle & Sebastian – “Storytelling”
MP3: Zeus – “Marching Through Your Head”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “I Want The World To Stop”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “White Collar Boy”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “The Blues Are Still Blue”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Funny Little Frog”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Wrapped Up In Books”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “I’m A Cuckoo”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Step Into My Office Baby”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Jonathan David”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Jonathan David” (70s version)
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “The Wrong Girl”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Legal Man”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “This Is Just A Modern Rock Song”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Is It Wicked Not To Care?”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Dirty Dream #2”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Lazy Line Painter Jane”
Video: Belle & Sebastian – “Dog On Wheels”
Video: Zeus – “How Does It Feel”
Video: Zeus – “Marching Through Your Head”
MySpace: Belle & Sebastian
I really don’t mean to keep tying Isobel Campbell items with those of her former bandmates, but that just keeps happening. For example, halfway through the show last night I got word that she would be playing an in-store at Criminal Records on October 20 at 6PM, sans singing partner Mark Lanegan, before their show at Lee’s Palace that night. Washington City Paper has a short chat with Campbell.
Johnny Flynn’s show at Lee’s Palace, originally scheduled for next Monday night, has been given a new date of November 14. Tickets for next week’s show are still good for the new date.
Video: Fran Healy – “Buttercups”
The first video from Duffy’s new record Endlessly is out. The album hits stores November 30.
Video: Duffy – “Well Well Well”
Stream: The Concretes / WYWH
The Drums will warm up for their this Saturday’s (October 16) show at the Mod Club later that evening with an in-store down the street at Soundscapes at 7PM, possibly to give their still-new substitute guitarist as much practice as possible. eye has a list of five things you should know about the band and AM New York has a Q&A.