[8 June 2006]
Confession: I find Belle and Sebastian, several New York Catchers notwithstanding, to be about as boring as a Sunday afternoon watching infomercials. I shall never forget a particular Christmas break several years ago, when I sat with my borrowed copies of If You’re Feeling Sinister and The Boy With the Arab Strap, trying and trying to the point of personal meltdown to understand just what in the heck all the fuss was about. Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting seemed almost invariably unfinished, melodies wandering here and there but never really reaching any kind of destination, lyrics either forgettable or forced, and through it all I envisioned him singing each and every one of them with the dopiest of smiles on his visage. Try though I did to comprehend, ‘twas only a matter of time before I was running for my copy of Donovan’s Greatest Hits to remind myself what good, raucous, livin’-on-the-edge music could be like.
Another confession: that’s a lie. I don’t actually own Donovan’s Greatest Hits, or any other Donovan records for that matter, but that’s not the point. The point is, one can only endure so much sugar with no spice, and my recent sitting with Blanket Music’s new set o’ two, The Love and Love Translation, hearkened back to that winter with Stuart Murdoch and his pals so vividly that I could almost feel my sucrose-laden teeth rotting away. Blanket Music’s press kit seems to suggest that these comparisons with Belle and Sebastian are inevitable, and all I can say is that I’m happy they’ve anticipated it beforehand.
The first disc, The Love is a collection of new original material. It’s an unfortunate collision of material and recording technique; Chad Crouch’s songs are decent enough on their own merits, and would likely shine on a recording that brought their strengths to the forefront. Since we’ve already crossed the line of oft-praised elements of indie rock which I don’t understand, I’d like to add lo-fidelity recording to that list. Indeed, it worked wonders for Will Oldham and others who wrote wonderful songs and recorded them with little more than an acoustic guitar, but the songs on Blanket Music’s new record are almost symphonic in scope, and the lifeless nature of this recording method makes all the otherwise wonderfully-arranged instrumentation sound as though it’s coming from underneath, well, a blanket. Perhaps this is the idea, that the sound of the music as a whole will come across better as a complete entity if emphasis is not placed on one or two instruments while relegating the rest to the background. While I’m not certain that it’s exactly what they had in mind, one thing that’s certain about this record is that everything—everything—runs together.
The major problem is that Crouch’s songs, while decent, simply aren’t good enough to shimmer through the deadening production that hinders them. The lyrics are mostly fluffy, occasionally attempting to be clever, but resonating not with the stimulation of intellect, but rather a cuteness reminiscent of a little kid telling a joke and getting the punch line wrong. And while I’d never suggest to someone to thin his grin for the sake of artistic melodrama, I simply cannot listen to a line like “Kiss, the acronym for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’” and claim anything other than a drooping head. In general, the melodies trail off, the lyrics are not well enunciated, and neither do much to complement one another. In addition to the sugar, it’s largely the same problem I had with Belle and Sebastian.
The second disc, Love Translation, is a covers disc, a collection of recordings by artists involved with Blanket Music’s Hush Records label. It’s an admirable idea, to give credit to those in one’s community of artists, but unfortunately the music itself doesn’t do much to distance itself from the disc of original material. In a way, that’s the mark of a good cover artist, to be able to take another’s material and make it one’s own, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like what’s happening here. No, it comes across not as though these covers of songs by artists such as the Decemberists and M. Ward have been given new identities, but rather that Blanket Music is only really capable of producing variations of a singular sound, regardless of who writes the song. Furthermore, the single song on Love Translation with whose original version I am well familiar, the Decemberists’ “Red Right Ankle”, does wonderfully towards making Colin Meloy’s song positively unmemorable, deconstructing the chords and melody and paying no attention whatsoever to where the words were placed so as to make them effective. Crouch’s mumbling of “Red Right Ankle” makes it clear why his original material fails to leave the impression that it might wish to: if you seemingly go to lengths to deconstruct a song whose beauty is spelled out for you beforehand (and few songs possess a simple beauty as innate as “Red Right Ankle”), how could you possibly be expected to draw these things from scratch in your own material?
So, for those who are used to, and even take pleasure in, looking through flat production to uncover what hooks may be there, then I would recommend this record to you, because underneath the film there exists a decent if underwhelming pop record. But for those of us who aren’t particularly into such fishing to uncover nothing more than a decent if underwhelming pop record, I would be remiss not to suggest another purchase. Belle and Sebastian just put a new one out, actually, and I hear it’s splendid.