Monday, 6 February 2017

Belle and Sebastian "Storytelling" (2002)




Belle and Sebastian "Storytelling" (2002)

Fiction/Freak/Dialogue: Conan, Early Letterman/Fuck This Shit/Night Walk/Dialogue: Jersey's Where It's At/Black And White Unite/Consuelo/Dialogue: Toby//Storytelling/Dialogue: Class Rank/I Don't Want To Play Football/Consuelo Leaving/Wandering Alone/Dialogue: Mandingo Cliche/Scooby Driver/Fiction (Reprise)/Big John Shaft

'Do you think I have potential as a writer?' 'Umm...no!' 'Well, thank you for being honest'

'Storytelling' should, in theory, have been a good match. Director Todd Solendz is kind of the 'Belle and Sebastian' of film-making: not many people know his work but those that do tend to be passionate about it and pass it on to their friends by word of mouth while studying for clues and symbols; his films are born for film studies classes, to be discussed over long rambling journeys at the canteen or on the school bus, rather than simpler mainstream tales for, well, simple mainstream audiences. What's more 'Storytelling' is pitched at just the right 'age' for the Belle and Sebastian characters who seem to be perennially stuck in the halfway house between high school and college, still trying to shape their own identities and trying to work out what it is they want to do with their lives (at the point in time before life gets moving and makes the decision for them: you could argue that Stuart Murdoch, struck down with m.e. shortly after this age, never quite made his mind up before life overtook him as well so no wonder so many of his characters live there). The film is also very B and S in the way that it's divided in two: a 'fiction' half where students trapped in an interminable creative writing lesson while everyone pretends not to know the teacher is having a gay affair with one of his students (the largely instrumental themes of the first side of the LP) and a 'non-fiction' second half about a teen from New Jersey with learning difficulties trying to navigate dysfunctional family life while applying to a college course that will mean he moves out and leaves his old problems behind, while no doubt taking on new ones. A planned third section, 'Autobiography', would have seen a football player coming to terms with the fact he's gay, but this got dropped before filming after the distributors got worried (most of the sex scenes of the 'fiction' part were heavily censored by a red oblong shape anyway, a laughable solution that has been much parodied since). Belle and Sebastian should have been born for this world full of uncertainty and hesitant steps into adulthood where the school 'jailers' you've been trying to escape for most of your life suddenly represent something safe and comforting when struck by the gaping unknown stretching out past the end of your course. Uniquely for this site I was pretty much at the right age for the events taking place in the film and score at the time and once again no other band represented the quietly troubled frustration of 'our' generation, outnumbered and uncounted due to the 'boom' years before us and growing up against a backdrop of social customs that change by the week, the way Belle and Sebastian do.

However, for all the good intentions, it just doesn't work. For once Stuart didn't write the album sleevenotes - the more starstruck Stevie did - and his apologetic notes admit that 'not everything got used...fair enough in my opinion, the Director has got to get his vision down after all'. Actually this was the understatement of the year (along with 'gee, it's quiet now The Spice Girls have broken up isn't it? Oh dear, I bet there's a reunion along any minute now and what a shame that will be'): only six minutes of Belle and Sebastian's planned score got used and most of that was merely heard underneath the film's interminably lengthy dialogue sequences where not much happens. The band even provided three separate goes at the end credits - two that told the 'story' of the first two sections which were rejected and a third, which was used, which was less about the film and more about the idea of trying to put a story down in a film script. Mick's additional sleevenote adds that Todd kept telling the band he loved their music 'but it's not right for the movie', adding that the director wanted the sound of 'housewives stroking their favourite soap flake box'. Which suggests that there was a bit of a 'mis-communication' in there somewhere. Throughout this album, which includes bits used, unused and ideas recycled for different songs, Belle and Sebastian do what they normally do: they tell what life is like as a worried teen, desperate to make their mark on a big world and struck afresh by the injustice, hypocrisy and prejudice of the adult world, desperate not to become like them but needing to in order to grow up. That's the tug-of-war that's been felt right since day one on Belle and Sebastian albums and even though the band are a lot closer to middle-age than childhood nowadays that's still the theme of the best songs. Somewhere along the way Solendz seems to have hired the band because they sounded 'vaguely 1960s' (legend has it he asked the band for a soundtrack like Simon and Garfukel's score for 'The Graduate' - certainly the films share much in common with middle-aged teachers trying to act young and the young pretending to be middle-aged and mature). 

He may, inadvertently, have been looking for Belle and Sebastian to represent the 'adult' view - the slightly decaying, depressing air in the film that the adults see the pupils about to live their lives open to all possibilities who aren't as stuck like they are and feeling slightly jealous. But Belle and Sebastian aren't that type of band at all: if in doubt they're always going to take the kiddies' side because they're less 'corrupted' than the adult world and at least worry about the consequences if they get things wrong. My sense is that Solendz was intending to laugh at the teens who felt scared and offended by racial prejudice yet felt it themselves or who thought that falling in love with a teacher was a good move for popularity in the classroom: actually, as they so often were, B and S are on the side of the teenagers. They aren't the ones taking advantage of the situation and at least they're trying to do theright thing, which automatically makes them a step above the adults who look down on them for being 'naive'. Solendz didn't want another 'Tigermilk', he wanted another 'Mrs Robinson' glorifying slightly naughty, slightly sleazy adults hanging on to their lost youth and he cast the band wrong. Stuart's cover is perhaps the best comment on the whole thing, with two Japanese friends of the band practising acupuncture on their hapless victim (perhaps locating 'pressure points' where it hurts the most!)

Actually Belle and Sebastian's soundtrack would have worked great in the film - though it would have made for a rather different emphasis to what ended up on screen. Most of the bits that were used were instrumental, with the majority of the record's first side based around a charming melancholic ode first named 'Fiction' and heard in variants under different names thereafter. Solendz probably wanted the song to resemble the downbeat mood of the teachers who know what they're doing is 'wrong' but feel so energised by being around a cast of young people. Belle and Sebastian, instead, seem to be plucking at the inherent melancholy in the life-changing events the characters know they're about to go through, their whole futures and their chance to escape the tiny world they grew up in which depends on their grades, their family's response to them leaving the nest and a whole lotta luck. The future is uncertain for all of these characters in all these songs - except, ironically, 'Storytelling' itself, the track written 'for' the director in last-minute desperation about all the hard 'choices' he has to make telling a story (which, by Belle and Sebastian standards, comes over as rather over-confident and a little aggressive). The best the characters can hope for is evading the law a little bit longer or becoming a talk-show host (with one kid's ambition simply being 'to be on TV' because it seems the easiest job to have). At school these pupils can still dream of having a future but the minute they step outside the school gates the last time they're on their own.

The theme that crops up again and again across the songs with words on this album is the fear of becoming a grown-up: 'Black and White Unite' is actually more like 'youngsters unite' as the narrator experiences prejudice on a train (shades of 'A Hard Day's Night?') and vows that things will be different when they're in charge - not least because the narrator loves everyone, especially the girls he meets. 'Storyteller' talks about consequences, 'responsibilities' to characters that writers of fiction don't have in their imaginary worlds but do in the real one. The narrator of 'I Don't Want To Play Football' (a very Murdoch response to being asked to write a song about a football player for the unused last third of the film!) longs to drop the discipline, but he also needs it in his life. 'Wandering Alone' is a too-perfect imaginary song about what true love will be like, played out in the narrator's head as he dreams of serenading his 'senorita' (with 'hope in the freedom he can almost touch'). 'Scooby Driver' already admits to having problems turning this into a reality though, Murdoch almost daring Solendz to use the song in his film ('I want to see the way that you portray a boy whose going to change his life today...') As for 'Big John Shaft' Murdoch sarcastically imagines returning to the film set to 'shoot another movie' after 'living someone else's life' (a comment on how different the focus of the film turned out to be based on the one the band were 'sold' perhaps?) This song, too, finds comfort in being told what to do by a #boss' who has all the answers - though whether this is a teacher, parent or a film director is left nicely vague. Interestingly many of these 'vocal' songs were written after the band had dropped the idea of making a film score, but still share so many ideas of the film (if not what the director was expecting the themes to be).

Perhaps that's because Belle and Sebastian were indeed afraid of 'growing up' in this period - or at least afraid that they were at the point in their careers when they had to get serious or disappear altogether. Though it's a theme that won't become as clear until later, the 'God Help The Girl' film especially finds Stuart stuck in a world of endless possibilities and futures where anything can happen - the part of his life he was living before his illness struck in his late teens and turned those endless horizons into the four tiny walls of his bedroom. After becoming well enough again, Stuart must have been certain that his life ahead held pure adult drudgery, competing with younger kids for dead-end jobs who had more experience than he did after years in bed. Instead he was rather shocked to find a 'magic spell' cast as he meets his future bandmates on a jobcentre course, makes records that turn out to be successful against all odds and gets the band signed to a minor record label in Jeepster that are pleased enough at the sales to leave the band alone and he meets a girl who has faith in him. Suddenly in 2002 all this has changed. 'Storytelling' was to be the band's last record for Jeepster before the move to the much bigger (though still Indie) label Rough Trade, who have much more say and make more demands for commercialism. The contracts would have been in the air as this album was being made, seeming like a last chance at innocence and eccentricity which wouldn't be allowed under the new regime despite the greater potential rewards (given that we're talking about the soundtrack to a film about the effects on education here, it's the equivalent of how n eleven-year-old thinks moving on from primary school to high school, with more power and more people paying attention but also more homework and less time for fun).

The bigger change, though, is that Isobel leaves after this album, her last contribution to the band being a sad wordless minor key 'ahhh' over 'Fiction Reprise' that sounds as if her heart is breaking (it's very much the sound of her solo records which somehow manage to sound big and small all at the same time). She, more than anyone, was the 'girl' that Stuart had dreamed of meeting, who gave him hope and strength in the early days and who - despite joining after the band name was decided on - was very much the '(camp)Belle' to Stuart's 'Sebastian'. Her loss is another reason this album feels so bittersweet and poised between the indulgences of being young and having to grow up. The pair's personal relationship had clearly taken a turn for the worse over the past couple of years which even greater space kept for her songs hadn't solved and the last 'normal' B and S project she takes part in proves to be both the most autobiographical and the angriest song in the band's canon: the lead track of the EP 'I'm Waking Up To Us'. 'We're a disaster!' Murdoch snarls, his usual patience and kindness exhausted, before quietly sighing 'I bet you never liked me anyway - you were the one love of my life and I had to let you go'. The loss of the dream girl, who so much represented the spirit of the band, was always going to tie itself into the Belle and Sebastian story and it does, both in the fact that for once Stuart gives so much of the album away to Stevie, Sarah and Isobel but also to the sense of despair and frustration in his songs. Many fans re-acted to 'Waking' negatively, sorry that the band's 'fairytale' was being turned into tabloid trash in such a brutal way (actually it's impressive in its bravery and honesty: Stuart is keen that the blame isn't all one way and he comes out of it looking as bad as she does, if not worse). Perhaps afraid of writing his heart out in song just yet and coming up with a whole album of 'Waking Up To Us'es, that might be why we got the one and only Belle and Sebastian soundtrack album anyway: the commission happened to come at a time when Stuart wanted to think of characters that couldn't possibly be related back to him - or her. And yet they do anyway (how could a writer as honest as Murdoch ever not?), his sadness all over the variations of 'Fiction' that's clearly about heartbreak, even if they have no words and were designed to be used as incidental music to shots of pupils writing. 'I don't want to play' he whines, unable to comprehend the changing rulebook anymore. 'In the rain all your plans will fade' he sadly adds to Stevie's upbeat mainframe to 'Black and White United', 'All that will be left is a jigsaw'. 'My career will die!' he sobs at the end of 'Big John Shaft', the last line of the last song of the last album for 'Jeepster'.

Thankfully we know the story doesn't end here. Against all the odds Belle and Sebastian don't break up when the love story is over or when the band move over to Rough Trade to compete with the 'big boys'. At least at first, they manage to stay true to their roots, adding to their traditional sound without replacing it (although 'The Life Pursuit' does perhaps go a little too far into generic pop band mode). At the time of writing 'Storytelling' is in an interesting position in the Belle and Sebastian canon, right at the halfway point. Most of the songs on previous albums, though never what you'd exactly call upbeat, are in many ways hopeful - the band offers everyone (but especially Murdoch) the chance to look back at a worried adolescence trapped between unemployment, dead-end jobs and misunderstood artists and know that it all turned out ok in the end, in a very roundabout way, and might for us at home too. The albums from hereon in all look back on the band's early days (and romance) as the 'glory days', full of mourning and regret about a perfect time that never actually sounded that perfect even at the time. Only most recently, on 'Girls In Peacetime Just Want To Dance' has Stuart sounded positive again, thankful to count his blessings and returning to memories of times before Belle and Sebastian, when it seemed even more unlikely that anything good would ever happen. 'Storytelling' is the one B and S album that doesn't fall into either half, trying instead to tell the story of characters in a film - and yet the fact the characters in the film so closely represent (in age, if not always by character) Stuart's vision of his 'Belle' and 'Sebastian' make this also one of the band's most revealing works. These are also characters who look forward to the future with fear and dread, but they shouldn't - sometimes good things happen, even when (especially when) you have teachers as dumb and crooked as this lot are. Childhood the best years of your life? Not for Belle and Sebastian. And that's why the band and film are such an odd fit and their songs so badly received. Somehow it's easier to avoid peer group pressure, football games you don't want to play and avoid corrupt people who have power over you when you're an adult. Though I doubt Jeepster or Isobel ever made Stuart actually play football, you sense that this is the ultimate message of this album: that maybe life as an adult might have its benefits after all...

So, is this soundtrack album any good? Yes and no. Like many records that started out life as incidental music it's not always built for easy listening. The dialogue in this film is pretty awful and most of the worst moments somehow ended up on the soundtrack LP (was that a comment, I wonder?!) Though the main tune used on 'Fiction' and the (gulp) six variations thereafter is lovely - especially when heard as either 'Fiction' or 'Freak' - there are only so many times you can sit through minute-long instrumental fragments, especially when they're so close to one another. 'Scooby Driver', a raucous and ragged re-make of 'Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie' without the interesting words, is too flimsy to have made it onto any other B and S project. Both 'Storytelling' and 'Big John Shaft' are unfortunate glimpses of the future as Belle and Sebastian tidy up their sound so well they leave out the 'human' details that make them so compelling. That doesn't leave a lot leftover to be honest, though thankfully what is left is top notch. Stevie, his confidence rising after his song for the 'Fold Your Hands' album, comes up with a gem in 'Wandering Alone' that somehow manages to pay homage to all his usual 1960s favourites (Beatles, Beach Boys, Stones) and goes somewhere very new, with a Spanish lilt that suits his eager narrator's attempts to woo his sweetheart very well. 'I Don't Want To Play Football' may only last a minute, but it's a powerful minute, with one of Stuart's most haunting and sad melodies somehow tugging at the heart-strings despite the daft lyrics. Then there's 'Black and White United', the most Belle and Sebastian song on the album and perhaps the most Belle and Sebastian song of their whole catalogue: it's muted, humble and anxious but the melody is so strong and the lyrics have so much heart that it sucks you in regardless on a song that's as silly or as serious as you want to make it, about themes of prejudice and community that have plagues writers for centuries or a simple tale of travelling on a train, depending how much you want to read into it. Many would call this song twee, but they'd be wrong: this is a song with the weight of the world on its shoulders and a bite behind it's politeness with lurking anger that the world could and should be doing better. That's a little like the record as a whole in fact as well as the more interesting message of the film (one which it's director seems to have devolved into merely a sub-plot) - the children (busy using graffiti, a very B and S idea for people who don't have a 'voice' nicked from Simon and Garfunkel, but using it for positives not prejudice) are the answer, not the problem. Had more of the LP and especially the film made more of that leitmotif then this could have been the most powerful album in the B and S canon; instead it's as close to inessential as this band have ever got.

'Fiction' is a lovely tune to start with, which is just as well because we're going to be hearing a lot of it from now on! This first version of the haunting refrain is performed mainly on piano, with twin acoustic guitars in support and a lovely and typically B and S string arrangement playing in melancholy counterpoint- sadly the band will move away from this signature sound after they join Rough Trade, perhaps because it reminds the band too much of the departing Isobel's cello. The mood is, much like the film itself, bittersweet. In my head (if nobody else's!) the piano represents the quiet hope and spirit of the pupils in the film, eager to set out amongst a great journey into adulthood, while the sweeping strings are the hints from what the pupils already sense from the grown-ups in the movie: that in all likelihood their life has peaked already and their big hopes for the future are going to fall apart. Later variations will draw on one or other 'half' of that feeling, but this song features both more or less equally, as 'Fiction' both cries itself to sleep and can't wait to wake up to a new day all at the same time. 

'Freak', for instance, is a purely sad version of the same riff. The main differences are the slower tempo and the fact that instead of strings we get Isobel (?) singing sad reflective harmonies and flutes that play along sadly in the background, as if 'hope' is now a distant memory. Given that Belle and Sebastian have never really done much in the way of instrumentals (and the synth solo [8] 'Electric Renaissance' couldn't have been less different!) this is very impressive stuff, with a real mood and atmosphere that's drawn up from the use of just a few instruments. Hardly freakish at all, this is about as purely mainstream and beautiful as Belle and Sebastian have ever been, with Stevie's folkie finger-picking the highlight.

Next a pupil is having a chat about career studies and admits that his only long term goal is 'to be on TV, maybe have a chat show like Conan or early Letterman...' In a way this short snippet of dialogue is an early dig at reality TV stars and people who have no ambition to do things but just want to be famous (and rich!) There's no Belle and Sebastian involvement with this track.

'Fuck This Shit' is a sad and bluesy instrumental, a little like the George Martin arranged production of 'This Boy' for the towpath scenes in 'A Hard Day's Night' when Ringo has a strop (but in real life had a bad hangover because he 'forgot' he was filming that day). What's more mega Beatles fan Stevie Jackson would have known this scene well! The lead instrument here is his harmonica playing set against piano, guitar, bass and strings and he sounds very fed-up and forlorn, like his creative writing class has just been cancelled in favour of double maths. This time the tune is a little different, although you can see where this melody line might also have started off life as a variation on 'Fiction'. Some fans have wondered, given the sweary title, whether Stevie based the riff around the title phrase, with the mouthorgan the 'closest' instrument to speaking (at least until the vocoder came along!) and thus code for what the teens in the movie think but aren't allowed to actually say. This is kind of the first version in reverse, the instrumental slowly finding solace when other instruments kick in and give the song a bit of an 'uplift'. Though very much film score incidental music, this one is rather good too.

'Nightwalk' is next up and is a nightmarish yet strangely peaceful variation on 'Fiction'. This one features the main riff now played on a xylophone, with some lovely cymbal washes from Richard Kolburn just about keeping this peaceful variant down to earth. The mood is other-worldly and deeply fragile, as if the hope that is getting these pupils through their tough exams and into the great beyond is about to break at any second. The mood is strangely untense though, with the band sleepwalking their way through the phrase instead. perhaps the loveliest version of the main riff after 'Fiction'.

Next up a bit of dialogue that doesn't make much sense in the context of the film, never mind outside it, where we get a brainwashing about how the school is really 'cool' and the teachers really do 'care'. Hmm, enough to sleep with the pupils it seems! A rallying American Football style cry then starts up, with everyone celebrating the fact that 'Jersey's where America's at!' Think The Beach Boys' 'Be True To Your School' (another song Beach Boys fanatic Stevie would have known well!) sung by people who are brainwashed (believe it or not The Beach Boys really did believe in their Hawthorne, CA school, a fictional version of it at least!) Again, there's no Belle and Sebastian input here.

Yippee - you've reached the 'halfway song point' and though it's not representative of this album at all 'Black and White Unite' is very representative of the group. At last we get a proper substantial song, although as it happens one that was written after the film and the only song here not originally intended as part of 'Storytelling' somewhere. It could be that Stuart and Stevie are here responding to the fact that Solondz rejected so much of their work by responding with a song that sums up the much more natural B and S philosophy about what being 'young' is all about. It's hope basically, something missing from much of the film, as the pair of narrators find themselves on a train ride. In a neat play on their mutual personalities, Stuart wonders about world politics, watching from the windows as protestors leave graffiti messages about injustice, watching 'communities or prejudice' huddle together in the carriages refusing to mix and makes a bad pun about the fact that the black and white football supporters on the train are 'united' in support of their favourite team, regardless of differences like skin colour. Stevie's narrator, meanwhile, 'falls in love' with 'every girl I meet!' Plus there's the teenage cry about it being the summer holidays and never having to 'wash for weeks!, most responsibilities gone. This lovely acoustic song is described by Stevie in the sleevenotes as reflecting the 'bittersweet, slightly decaying summer feeling in the air when we were putting the record together' but that's not what I hear: this is early summer, when six weeks of holidays stretch out endlessly just waiting to be filled without any sense of clocks carving out time, when there are so many wonderful things to do that it's impossible to work out which one to do first, 'the country a map' waiting to be explored. As for the melody, it's another one of those occasional AAA 'train' songs with Richard Kilburn putting together a great rat-a-tat that's the very double of a locomotive. Unlike The Who's scary ride through '5.15' or Gene Clark's mournful 'Train Leaves Here This Morning', however, this is a happy and confident song with the narrators looking forward greatly to their next destination, whatever it may be. This delightful, quietly bouncy song is sheer fun and utterly charming, so utterly Belle and Sebastian in its understated cheer and laidback energy.

'Conseulo' stars Mick Cooke on trumpet and guest Catriona MacKay on harp playing a sad flamenco version of the tune that will later be heard on 'I Don't Want To Play Football'. This piece from the 'Non-Fiction' half of the film follows Consuelo, the Spanish maid, as she works around the house of a family she hates doing a job she hates and vowing to leave the first chance she gets. Her sense of despair and bitterness is quite different to the teenagers in the film - she doesn't have an open-ended chance at success and is instead stuck in a dead-end job. And yet, like 'Fiction', what Belle and Sebastian do in this instrumental is take two very different strands and twirl them around one another in counterpoint so that, in this case, Mick's no-nonsense harshly aggressive trumpet part is joined by a floaty harp part that wafts in and out, a ghostly reminder of all that could have been, playing the same part over in a much happier, more carefree way. As with much of the album, it's not the sort of song you look out to play for fun but it is a cut above most incidental film scores.

Next up it's a return of the dreaded dialogue. 'Toby' is making a film and wants to finish it while his co-director (and old sweetheart and head of the 'all American family' he wants to film) says they're not ready. She has a point - and that's judging by the finished film never mind the one he's trying to make in the movie! His attempts to see the film through an audience's eyes do however lead on rather neatly to...

'Storytelling', Belle and Sebastian's third and final go at making a song for the end titles. Sarah gets a long overdue starring role on the album and she's as excellent as ever, with a cute-but-not-too-cute vocal in duet with Stevie. However as a song, it's not up to most on this album, with a slightly ugly melody and rather hollow words that lack the usual heart of most Belle and Sebastian recordings. That's a shame because Murdoch's typically quirky piano riff is a good one and the idea is very much in keeping with band tradition: escapism. Sarah's narrator lurks, watching all the people around her and realising that in her own mind 'a plot begins to take shape'. Stevie admits in the sleevenotes that they wrote this one to praise Solendz himself in a last desperate attempt to get an actual 'song' into the film and you can tell: it's a little too kind in its depiction of an omnipotent creator. Lurking underneath the lyrics and the pretty sunny disposition of the song is more sarcasm, however. 'Are you sick, crippled, insane?' parrots Stevie in a sweet voice as he wonders whether any 'creator' has the right to comment from another person's point of view before the final verse turns on Solendz (or at any rate this fictional 'storyteller') for thinking he has all the answers when 'it's a mighty big world' and any person who tries to tell a story will always tell it from a prejudiced point of view. It's an interesting work but this song tries a little too hard to be 'normal' Belle and Sebastian and the band have rather forgotten how, with so many characteristic touches that it sounds more like a parody than a proper entry in the B and S canon.

'Class Rank' finds a young kid dreaming of leaving school behind because he won't have to play football anymore or take p.e. lessons. I concur, heartily! The only B and S involvement is a six note trumpet 'n' piano riff over the opening.

Stuart, always ready with a sympathetic ear to bullied kids who have interests outside the norm, hears a whole song in this idea and weaves a comical tale of not understanding why anyone would want to enjoy something so ordinary and mainstream when there are a million more creative things to do out there around one of his most heartbreakingly sad yet beautiful tunes. On one of only two 'pure' lead vocals on the album, Stuart tells us he doesn't see the point in 'running, catching, throwing, taking orders from a moron' and then sighs over inequality even here this young ('The girls are just as good at playing'). In the context of the film this piece was meant for 'part three', the 'Autobiography' section that never got filmed and made this song redundant in a stroke. In the wider context of what B and S seem to be trying to do with their soundtrack album it sounds more as if football comes to be synonymous with peer group pressure and any mainstream craze that everyone has to join in with or feel like an outcast, even if they hate it. Murdoch is pointing out quietly here that even though it's the teenagers getting ticked off in the film for being 'dumb' and having things 'easy', actually being young is hard for a particular type of sensitive teen who doesn't fit in (like B and S and most of their natural audience). While some of the hip young dudes (and gals) of the school do have an easy ride in adult life too, most find it a shock when their peer group breaks up and leaves them alone with a working group uninterested in what the latest crazes are (you sense the director was one of these confident young things once). It's the B and S characters, always on the fringes of society, who fare better as a rule because they're used to making their own way in life. That may be the point here as Murdoch, far from laughing at a kid for getting things 'wrong' and ignoring later adult responsibility the way the director probably wanted him to, instead sides with the kid and puts a warm comforting arm round him (via strings), saying that actually he is 'right' of a sort. Being an adult in the director's head means doing things you don't want to have to do, but in the bands' that's what being a child is all about - at least adults have 'choice' about what daft and dumb life decisions they make.

'Consuelo Leaving' is a mournful instrumental version of 'I Don't Want To Play Football', with Mick's superb trumpet blowing heard against some stabbing staccato piano lines and drum beats. The song slowly and sadly marches its way across an aural school playground, the very audio image of a kid at the back of the field who doesn't want to be there, his shoelaces coming undone as he hides as far away from the ball as possible (woah, I think I've just had a flashback to myself right there... and yes I was not only picked last for the football team, I was picked after the gravel on the floor!)) How odd, then, that in the film it's been juxtaposed instead with the moment the smart cleaner Consuelo learns that her son has been executed for a crime he didn't commit and the insensitive family she looks after just want her to clean up their first-world-country mess. Actually this moment works rather well, but it sounds more to me as if it was again written for the third, unused part of the film and recycled here in an attempt to fill up more space in the 'second' part of the film.

'Wandering Alone' is the album's most famous moment, a catchy Stevie song that was a popular mainstay of the band's setlists for many years. Stevie wrote this to give Consuelo - perhaps the only character in the film the band actually liked - a whole back-story as she falls in love back home, is swept off her feet and falls in love with an unsuitable, adulterer husband. She's a victim and her downfall here in a flashback (unseen in the film - the band intended this one as the song that went over the end credits, though it wasn't used) is a direct cause of the misery of the rest of her life and her dead-end job looking after bratty kids. However B and S make this song so enticing and intoxicating we get swept up in it all too, with Stevie excelling as the philandering senor. What with great three-part harmonies from Stuart and Sarah too for the first time, you can really hear the future 'Rough Trade' era B and S sound fall into place here. The lyrics are clever, sounding as if they've been translated from another language and yet are still strangely poetic and alluring ('Lost to the world he had known as a boy' 'warm in the woods that conceal him from light') and we believe him when he calls his senorita a 'sweet soul put here to save him'. The song even ends with him pledging his love before God - presumably as part of a wedding ceremony though we never hear that. At the end the pair are still together but we're left with subtle clues that they won't be for long even away from the film plot. The title is a giveaway - it's how the song starts, with Stevie telling us his woe at growing up 'alone' but the idea of the narrator as a 'loner' is emphasised here; listen out for the 'hook' of the song too as it places the emphasise on 'me far away from my wise' as opposed to what he's actually singing 'please do not send me far away from my wise senorita'. If Consuelo is wise, of course, she'll get the hell out now rather than staying for serenades, roses and multiple handclaps. For those of us safe at home, however this is a catchy song, bright and funny and far removed from Belle and Sebastian's normal sensitive singer-songwriter fare.

I don't know what a 'Mandingo Cliche' is, dear reader, and have a suspicion it's nonsense made up for the film script. Here a teacher talks about the stupidity of her female pupils who hate the idea of prejudice mentally but primally and instinctively are still scared of African-American boys. In past generations maybe (Solendz was born in 1959, a generation or so before most of the band), but hardly now. The prejudice here is more that the teacher turns on her pupil for being a 'stupid, bored suburban white girl who demonises then runs for cover'. This stupid bit of dialogue is the most irritating of the film passages, especially as it drowns out a rather better instrumental going on behind. A sweeter, bouncier version of 'Fuck This Shit', this features Isobel lah-lah-lahing in place of Stevie's mouthorgan and the mood is much more upbeat despite the stupidity of the film dialogue. This is, sadly, her last appearance on any B and S recording and not a substantial one at that.

'Scooby Driver' is a raucous rocker that's amongst Belle and Sebastian's noisiest, sung by Stuart and Stevie together. The odd title refers back to the antisocial elder teen nicknamed 'Scooby' who Consuelo looks after. Though barely seen in the film (he hides in his bedroom, smoking pot) Belle and Sebastian give him a whole rather rushed song - albeit one that lasts a mere 73 seconds. Sensing that the kid deserves better than his parents and teachers give him, Scooby becomes a typical B and S adolescent, confused and isolated, desperate to be 'the centre of attention' but too scared to ask for that himself. The song is loud and noisy and punkish, a desperate wail of attention as the band back up the lad with the line that 'at least I'm not a fake!' in contrast to nearly everyone else in this film. 'You'll never be the city guy' he tells his capitalist father (played by John Goodman, now better known as Sully from Monsters Inc) 'any more than I'll be presenting the scooby show' (which, depending how you take it, is either the TV series about the cartoon dog or the idea that such an introvert will ever draw attention to himself on TV and make his cry for help a reality). A fun burst of energy in an album that badly needs it, it's a shame that the band didn't add more to this song, especially the brief instrumental which features Stuart and Sarah adding daft falsetto swoops like some 1950s doo-wop group. The song is way too short to make the impact it needs to though.

At last comes the final variation of the signature tune with 'Fiction (Reprise)'. This one sounds much like the original, only know the strings join in from the beginning and everything is in synch in a much happier frame of mind. The opening tune is played on accordion this time, while there are much louder bass, drums and a whole new harpsichord part. Right at the end we get the last snatch of film dialogue as, against all odds, the 'movie; being made in the film turns out to be a 'hit' - for all the wrong reasons, the 'all American family' turning out to be highly revealing in their dysfunctional ways!

The movie clearly isn't a hit though - especially as Solendz turned down a second attempt at writing music for the closing credits which is pretty lousy as a song by B and S standards but does sum up the film quite well. 'Big John Shaft' isn't a character in the film and nor, from what I can tell, is he an actor - Stevie's sleevenotes tell us he's 'the actor portraying Mr Scott the English teacher', but that's just a typical bit of B and S throw-them-off-the-scent spin; he's actually played by actor Robert Wisdom and the lyrics are more concerned with film-making again, leading me to wonder if B and S were commenting on their director again. If so then it's not a terribly supportive gesture: 'I'll make another movie, the same one as the year before, take a tired idea, put it in the hands of Hollywood' run the opening verse. Yes there is a film being made in the second half too where 'the lines get blurred', but Toby's shoot clearly isn't 'Hollywood' and lines about 'living someone else's life' seem to refer more to the ideas suggested already on songs like 'Storytelling' itself. Check out the closing remarks too: 'Put me in a frock and leave me to retire, maybe my career will die' - B and S aren't happy and while it wouldn't be above them to write about a fictional character in this way, this sounds more personal. Sadly the song forgets to add a melody to go along with its razor sharp wit and Stuart sings uncharacteristically flatly throughout as if trying not to get mad and give the game away. It's a rather pedestrian end to the album and this 'amateur' half of B and S' career and doesn't even feature that many trademarks, with its 1980s synths sounding at odds with the very 1950s backing vocals and very 1960s trumpet.


Overall, then, 'Storytelling' is a bit of a hit and miss affair. For everything the band get right they seem to get another wrong and for every substantial weighty song there's yet another repeat of film dialogue or another variation on an instrumental theme. Like the movie, it's a work of two halves with one sounding like pure incidental film music, which is lovely and courageously new if not made for repeated in-depth listening the way their other albums are; the second half is more concerned with songs and characters, losing their way when they talk about the director but gaining marks as they try to fill in back stories only hinted at across the course of the film. Had this score been a little bit longer, included a couple of extra actual 'songs' and dumped the film dialogue then it might well have been up to the standards of other B and S albums. Instead, in retrospect, it sounds like a second 'marking time' album following on from 'Fold Your Hands Child' that sees Stuart Murdoch running out of his 'poorly' era material and not yet ready to become an adult - the 'hidden' theme of the film that the band pick up on and is much more entertaining than any of the 'surface' commentary bluntly (and often stupidly) tackling disability, race and feminism. The rest of the band get more to do than normal which is good and the attempts to write through ready-made characters and add poetic film score music are strong too; however heard as a whole it's clear Belle and Sebastian are trying to search for a new sound and haven't quite found it yet. Even so, this is a more revealing and substantial soundtrack score than most film albums ever are and far from being 'storytelling' you can actually learn a lot about the state of Belle and Sebastian in 2002 from this project. A new line-up, a new label, a new producer and a new sound are all it takes to properly kickstart the second half of Belle and Sebastian's career the following year however, with 'Storytelling' left as a stepping stone that almost worked. 

Other Belle and Sebastian articles from this site you might be interested in reading:



'The Life Pursuit' (2006) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/belle-and-sebastian-life-pursuit-2006.html

'Write About Love' (2010) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/01/news-views-and-music-issue-86-belle-and.html

'God Help The Girl' (Stuart Murdoch Film) (2014) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/belle-and-sebastianstuart-murdoch-god.html

Girls In Peace Time Just Want To Dance (2015) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2015/06/belle-and-sebastian-girls-in-peacetime.html

Belle and Sebastian: Existing TV Clips http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/belle-and-sebastian-existing-tv-clips.html

Belle and Sebastian: 12 Unreleased Songs http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/belle-and-sebastian-12-unreleased-songs.html

Belle and Sebastian: Non-Album Songs http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/belle-and-sebastian-non-album_29.html



Belle and Sebastian: Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/belle-and-sebastian-assorted.html

No comments:

Post a Comment