Dance In The Fallen Leaves

Don't you just hate music journalists? Getting to hear records weeks, if not months before the poor blighted ´punter'... What a life. The downside of course is that you tend to miss out that whole excitement about the release date thing; that marvellous sense of expectation as you queue in line for the record store to open, that heart in the mouth moment as you fork over your cash and rush home to whack it on the record player. Sorry, showing my age there... should have read ´before whacking it in your PowerBook and ripping it onto your iPod'.

Of course I never considered myself a music journalist, which is just as well because nor has anyone else, but still... it's nice to pretend. Especially since it's meant reigniting my love affair with that band of ragamuffins some call Belle And Sebastian.

See, the way things have been recently I wouldn't have bothered to even cast more than a casual eye over the fact that they have a new album lined up. I mean, I'd been unimpressed by anything they'd done since (bits of) The Boy With The Arab Strap. I thought, ´I don't need Belle And Sebastian in my life', and you know the only reason that big poster for those mythic Manchester Town Hall concerts still hangs on my classroom wall is because it's too high up for me to easily reach.

So when a copy of Dear Catastrophe Waitress (Rough Trade) fell in my lap, I had the review all ready to go. It talked of Moments and Memories, of how Bruce Dickinson was right and dismissed their current effort with a toss of the hand, a flick of the wrist and a ´we're all different people now'. I thought I'd let them off lightly, thought I had played the drifted-apart former lovers part pretty well.

Then I listened to the album. And then I listened again.

It's a week and a half later and I'm still listening. Hardly anything else has managed to get on the stereo in the meantime. To say I'm surprised isn't even in it.

So I'm not going to repeat the things I ended up writing in the second draft of that review here, except to say that, ah, well, look: I WAS right and we're none of us the same as we were, and that's just fine. Belle And Sebastian no longer sound to me like the same slightly scrawny gang of scruffy scallywags I fell in love with all those years ago. They sound more self-assured, and they sound like they're having a whale of a time. Which is something we should not underestimate the value of in Pop.

Dear Catastrophe Waitress sounds like a magical Pop confection, crammed full of wonderful songs that are stuffed with wonderful moments that skip and soar, that crawl along your spine laying butterfly kisses as they go. Lines leap out and ambush you with a knowing grin; there's lyrical and musical nods of reference and reverence that glow with wit and arch wisdom but that never for a moment sound laboured and over-wrought with ´cleverness'. Best of all today are the sounds of ping pong balls, the lovely Thin Lizzy references, the line about ´walk away renee' and the fact that ´Stay Loose' sounds like an outtake from ´Back in Denim' (some mighty, mighty recommendation in case you were wondering). Oh, and the fact that ´Wrapped Up In Books' sounds for all the world like Cliff Richard's ´In The Country' (as covered by The Farmers Boys).

It's the kind of record obsessions build themselves around.
Isobel Campbell, along with Stuart David, was of course once a member of what some of us old-timers might like to call the mythic Belle And Sebastian line-up. Stuart David went on to record a run of albums as Looper that nosedived from pretty good to frankly abysmal, and after the hateful Gentle Waves outing a few years ago by Isobel, I was all ready to unleash a shock and awe assault on her new solo album. But hold on the Tomahawk missiles! Belay that order to send in the Green Berets! Because Amorino (Snowstorm) is actually a rather delicious offering that makes me rub my eyes in cartoon fashion amazement.

If Broadcast made, in HaHa Sound, a classic late ´60s/early ´70s soft-pop masterpiece for which they then replaced the backing track with gurgling electronics, then Isobel has done exactly the same, except she evidently decided that actually the rococo instrumentation ought to stay. So it really does sound like stepping back into the past, to a time when the mythic Wendy and Bonnie (any excuse to mention them and their peerless Genesis album must be grasped with both hands) ruled the roost, or, to step onwards again, to the early 1980's when people like Vic Godard, Weekend and The Style Council started to redefine the Pop landscape with their middle-of-the-road revolutionary sounds of magical airy Jazz-Pop.

With Amorino, Isobel shows herself capable of at least beginning to rise towards the heady heights set by the likes of her influences such as Bobbie Gentry, and that's no mean feat. In doing so, she's given me one of the most unexpected and delightful surprises of the year. Do yourself a favour, and indulge in the surprise too.
There was a rumour recently that there would be support slot on the upcoming Belle And Sebastian tour for James Kirk. It would have been nice if it had been true, because Kirk is one of the all-time greats. Then again, maybe it's as well it's not, Kirk being also one of the all-time great mavericks, as elusive as one of those wild cats of Scotland that his mate Edwyn Collins once sang about. Seeing him as ´support' to anyone just wouldn't seem right.

John Carney has already rightly said that the James Kirk story is clouded and strange. His contributions to the early Orange Juice are often overlooked, or at least not given the respect they deserve. I'm sure there are still many out there who assume that ´Felicity' was another Collins song, despite the Wedding Present presaging their John Peel Session cover with Gedge telling us that ´this is a William Shatner number'. I always assumed everyone got the joke, but maybe not.

So with' Felicity' James Kirk was responsible for one of the all-time great singles. He did it again with his sole single as Memphis. The sheer infectious melody of ´You Supply The Roses' was unforgettable. It still is. It is one of those songs that just lodges in your memory, snatches of it coming out into your conscious at the oddest moments.

It's fitting then that both songs make come-backs of sorts on James' first solo album, the terrifically titled You Can Make It If You Boogie on Marina. Marina has a reputation for rescuing old Postcard heroes and their ilk (witness Malcolm Ross and assorted Pale Fountains connections), and this sits squarely up on top of the pile. ´Felicity' undergoes a change of pace and emerges as an idly sauntering, soberer elder sibling of it's OJs incarnation. See the fine lines of age, the flecks of silver in the hair; the changes brought on by twenty years of hiding in the shadows, perhaps. The old Memphis song meanwhile returns as an echo of itself, in the guise of ´Krach Auf Wiedersehen' which cheekily ends with the lines ´up all night with the music on / playing our favourite song'. I couldn't put it better myself. The rest of the album is similarly marvellous, seeping into your soul with repeated listenings so that it reaches the point where you need your daily fix of at least one of these delicious songs to kep going. Pick of the crop for the moment is the exquisite ´Old Soak' with it's refrain of ´I'm an old soak / I haven't a hope / but I'm feeling fine', sounding more than anything like a lost diamond from the Ostrich Churchyard played by a troupe of world weary troubadors dreaming of bootlace ties and fringed suede jackets. And whilst this is inescapably James Kirks album, we ought not forget the band who help colour in the songs. Backed by Creeping Bent artistes The Leopards (including one-time Aztec Camera Campbell Owens on bass), some others cropping up supplying various backing vocals include Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake and Trashcan Sinatras' Francis Reader (yes, brother of former Fairground Attraction's Eddi). Popping up too is Justin Currie, perhaps in an attempt to make amends for the way his Del Amitri so badly lost their way in the ´90s.
Did the BMX bandits also lose their way in the ´90s? I'm asking because I honestly don't know. The last thing I remember hearing by the BMX bandits was ´Rosemary Ledingham' in 1988 or thereabouts. It was on that great Jello Aid compilation that also had the greatest Meat Whiplash track ever in ´Losing Your Grip'.

´Rosemary Ledingham' was prime Bandits. It was, to coin a phrase, ´twee as fuck'. Didn't Susan name her goldfish Rosemary Ledingham in homage? And didn't someone sing the BMX Bandits as she was flushed down the toilet on her passing? Whatever. I well remember reading the Coca-Cola Cowboy fanzine at the time, and there being a piece by lead Bandit Duglas all about this girl he used to see on the train when he was going home from college. If I remember rightly the girl was the sister of a friend, and wore the tell-tale green blazer of the Aloysius school that was situated up near the Art School. It was a great piece, and in my copy of the ´zine there was a very heavy score through the girl's name. Holding it up to the light and squinting, however, I could make out the name. It was Rosemary Ledingham.

I don't know if Duglas is still in love with Rosemary, but on the evidence of the Bandits' Down At the Hop (Shoeshine) he and fellow BMXer Francis MacDonald are clearly still in thrall to Jonathan Richman and the spirit of the already ancient West Coast captured in the past by the likes of Brian Wilson, Jan and Dean, Gram Parsons, the whole deal... you know the score by now. The album drips with sonic references to all those greats, (as well as lots of little nods to the aesthetic of the fifties) and is a truly magical trip through the soft-pop country landscape. There are loads of treats on here, but today let's pick and grab at the surging Monkees shimmy of ´the road of love is paved with banana skins' (infectious just isn't in it); the shimmering glitter of ´the daughters of Julie Evergreen'; the hilarious ´Little Kitty' with it's blatant ´Kids In America' steal; the soft shiver of Francis' gorgeous ´Love's Supposed To be Fun'. Down At The Hop is a sweet hop skip and jump, a pirouette of hope in times of need. Hold it tight and dance in the fallen leaves.

© 2003Alistair Fitchett