Belle and Sebastian
The Life Pursuit (Matador, 2006)
Only Belle and Sebastian, the Glaswegian septet that commands one of pop's most rabid—and cutesiest—cults, would devote 14 pages of the insert booklet of their latest CD to reprinted e-mail exchanges with fans. "I want to move to Glasgow for university, but my mum thinks it's a bad idea," writes Laura. "What do you think I should do?" For the first few years of their career, Belle and Sebastian cultivated an air of mystery; they built an adoring fan base by lying low, refusing to pose for photos or do interviews, all the while releasing witty, melancholy chamber-pop albums that sounded unlike anything else out there. They've since emerged from hiding, but their mystique has only increased. They may sell just 100,000 or so copies of every release, but if you measure popularity by the depth of fan devotion, you could argue that Belle and Sebastian are one of the world's biggest bands. The group has a sense of humor about the intensity of the fan-love: In another reprinted online exchange, lead singer Stuart Murdoch answers an e-mail asking for romantic advice by deadpanning, "Our subsequent long player will explain what to try next."
The current long-player, like all of Belle and Sebastian's albums, inhabits a hermetically sealed universe, shut off from both 21st-century pop production values and adult life. The songs are set in a quaint hipster-fairyland: art student types falling in and out of love in a city of rain-lashed cobblestones. The sound is still framed by folk rock and lounge—a swirling, tuneful mix of Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, and Burt Bacharach. But as on their last album, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, the band experiments with more danceable styles: Motown, skittering psychedelic-soul, and bouncy funk-pop, all of which get put through Belle and Sebastian's twee-machine and come out sounding weird, a bit wimpy, and completely charming. The band is still at its best in pretty, doomy folk-rock songs like "Another Sunny Day," with Murdoch's vocals drifting wistfully over chiming guitar arpeggios. Seven albums in, Belle and Sebastian are awfully good at the little things they do.
Stuart Murdoch's lyric writing remains the band's calling card—enrapturing the faithful and driving Belle and Sebastian naysayers around the bend. He can be maddeningly precious: "I took a photograph of you in the herbaceous border/ It broke the heart of men and flowers and girls and trees." But Murdoch's little poems are actually what save Belle and Sebastian from their cuteness. His writing bristles with bitchiness. Many of Murdoch's songs are remembrances of school days, and those that aren't are usually set in high-school-like social hornet's nests, seething with cliques and resentments and petty rivalries. In "Dress You Up," he sings in the voice of young woman whose best friend has made it big and left her behind: "You got lucky, you ain't talking to me now/ Little Miss Plucky/ Pluck your eyebrows for the crowd/ Get on the airplane/ You give me stomach pain." Murdoch may be the most dedicated disser outside of hip-hop; he's the imperious hipster-geek who stands in the corner at the party, casting a withering eye on all. And that, even more than their sad sweet sound, may be the reason that Belle and Sebastian are so beloved. In song after song they offer a vicarious thrill, a deeply satisfying revenge of the nerds.
James Blunt Back to Bedlam (Atlantic, 2005)
James Blunt is a former British army captain who served in Kosovo in the 1990s and later did a stint as a bodyguard for Queen Elizabeth while moonlighting as an aspiring rock balladeer. His debut album, filled with quavery love songs and plaints, came out last spring in the U.K., where it has generated both adulation and loathing. It's sold 2.5 million copies, spawned several hit singles, and made a sex symbol out of Blunt, a handsome guy with tousled locks and big, damp, dreamy eyes that are perpetually fixed on the middle distance, scanning the landscape for his next spiritual epiphany, or really hot chicks. On Wednesday, he won three Brit Awards, the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys. Now, he looks set to become a stateside star. Back to Bedlam is currently at No. 12 on the Billboard album charts, and its lead single, "You're Beautiful,"has rocketed all the way to No. 2, right behind the Queen of America, Beyoncé.
Blunt's songs are solidly built and virtually indistinguishable from one another. They feature three or four chords, strummed on acoustic guitars that are boosted way up in the mix, and they build to big singalong choruses in which Blunt lets rip his squeaky rasp of a voice. This is Blunt's be-all and end-all—whether you like his music will depend entirely on your taste for the sound of a pained falsetto keening over guitar crescendos. Britpop fans clearly like it. From Coldplay to Keane to Starsailor to Damien Rice, the U.K. charts have been overrun in recent years with sensitive fellows singing lush odes to their own capacity for deep feeling at the very tippy-top of their vocal range.
Blunt has a little wrinkle on the formula: He's a horny toad. He's a certifiable member of what Elvis Costello once called the " 'Fuck me, I'm sensitive,' Jackson Brown school of seduction," confessing his way into the sack, and that smarm is why he's generated repulsion in some quarters. Among other things, he's inspired a new Cockney rhyming slang term, in which his name is used in place of … a word that rhymes with Blunt. (If someone in London calls you a "right James," they're not being nice.) A bit harsh perhaps, but with "You're Beautiful"—a song about leering at a girl on a subway that begins, "My life is brilliant/ My love is pure"—he was asking for trouble.