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Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Murdoch stumbles with ‘God Help the Girl,’ ‘Stills’

Belle and Sebastian, the Glaswegian pop institution beloved by shy girls and bookish boys the world over, has been quiet since 2006, when the band finished touring with its then-new album, The Life Pursuit, performing a show at the Hollywood Bowl complete with symphony orchestra. Aside from a children’s record featuring a new song and Stuart Murdoch’s contribution to the Dark Was the Night compilation, there has been almost no public activity from the group. A new Belle and Sebastian record and a tour might come sometime next year, but save for their booking agent, no one seems to know much about this.

Murdoch has, however, been working on another project. In 2007, he began calling for girl singers, and in June of this year he released God Help The Girl, an album-length companion to a musical that may be produced in the future about institutionalization, songwriting, and girl groups. Belle and Sebastian serves as its backing band, and Murdoch makes occasional appearances, but this is primarily a vehicle for a singer named Catherine Ireton, whose voice is much bigger and really not at all like any member of B&S’s. It’s a jarring, surprising listen, as Murdoch does songs about girls a whole lot better than he does songs about girls to be sung by girls, which come across as strange and inexplicably unsatisfying.

Its companion piece, an EP called Stills, is an improvement. Taken out of the context of an album, the material sounds nowhere near as ambitious, and this is a good thing. It helps to render any semblance of a narrative between tracks nonexistent a non-issue, and it seems less like a frustrating diversion between B&S records and more like something to be taken on its own terms. Whereas the album featured far too many vocalists: Ireton, Murdoch, the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, Smoosh’s Asya and three other girls: and B&S covers: a Northern Soul makeover of “Funny Little Frog” and a reworking of “Act of the Apostle”: this smaller set reduces the vocal personnel to Ireton and Murdoch, features no covers, and is a whole lot easier to take as a consequence.

Plus, most importantly, the songs are at least a little better. “I’m In Love With The City” opens the EP with a narrative mostly about anxiousness and boy stealing. The huge horns and the soaring string section breaks through in the second verse. “He’s A Loving Kind of Boy,” the only Murdoch vocal lead here, runs the risk throughout of being hijacked totally by mariachi horns and flowery orchestration, though the strings are good, as is the actual vocal lead.

The last three tracks demonstrate actual, audible improvement, and a few of these might save my overall impression of this project. The EP’s title track reduces its instrumentation to just piano and strings, and doing away with the horns makes Ireton’s lovely vocal melodies much easier to appreciate, since they are, in fact, quite good, and there’s nothing standing between them and me as there are on so many songs across both the album and the EP. “Baby’s Just Waiting” is also gorgeous; the song’s backing vocals and accompanying string section pull off some sort of trick in its second half that leaves me inexplicably drawn to it. Finally, there’s “The Psychiatrist Is In,” where Ireton goes ahead and does a Stuart Murdoch impression and pulls it off surprisingly well, given how much stronger a vocalist she is.

Whether or not the project was a success is still beyond me; I’m waiting until if and when the film version of this happens to come to any conclusions. While I’m not crazy about the God Help the Girl album and I’m lukewarm (but more receptive) towards this EP, I’m willing to give Stuart Murdoch and company another chance to get it right.

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    annabell schmidtNov 22, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    unfortunatelly the research for this article was not very profound.

    the title track “stills” is not sung by the truly strong vocalist catherine ireton but by her fellow band member alexandra klobouk and “baby´s just waiting” is performed by celia garcia, the third member of the group of girls, who form the center of god help the girl.