[6 July 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One look at the debut album by The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, and you’ll know immediately that this young band adores Scottish orchestral pop icons Belle and Sebastian to the point of near-fanaticism. You’ve got the soft-focus cover photo of a young indie girl, a tediously long band name that just happens to have Scotland in the title, and, of course, an ironic-sounding album title. If that’s not enough, turn the CD over, and you’ll see a host of song titles that smack of artsy preciousness: “Ellen’s Telling Me What I Want to Hear”, “Would You Still Love Me if I Was in a Knife Fight?”, “I Say the Stupidest Things Sometimes”. If you can’t stand Belle and Sebastian, you probably hate Belle and Sebastian wannabes even more, and a two-second peek at this album will be enough to send you away in disgust. However, if you’re a total sucker for gentle, thoughtful music like that, then you just might want to look give this one a try.
The thing is, The Scotland Yard Gospel choir hail from Chicago, not Glasgow, but their love of orch-pop runs so deep, they might as well hail from Scotland. The music on their new album, I Bet You Say That to All the Boys, is typically acoustic-based, as they combine folky male vocals (think Nick Drake) with pretty, breathy female singing (think Camera Obscura). There’s lots of cello, violin, flute, and flugelhorn peppering each song, with plenty of dry humor in the lyrics. The songs by singer/guitarist/keyboardist Elia Einhorn are unapologetically shameless in their worshipping of all things Belle and Sebastian, so much so, in fact, that Stuart Murdoch is name-dropped twice on the album (once in a song, and again in the liner notes), but despite the immense lack of originality in his compositions, they possess a soft, unassuming charm that’s impossible to deny.
Einhorn has admitted to modeling the band’s first single “Jennie That Cries” after the work of Mr. Murdoch, and it’s clear that the guy has done his homework, because it’s so similar to Belle and Sebastian, it’s stunning. Over a gently shuffling drum brush beat and lush strings and flutes, Einhorn sings, with perfectly-executed Murdochian phrasing, about the classic orch-pop subject, the sullen female art student: “So Jennie keeps her pain in the art on her canvas, in her paintbrush strokes, boy, the way that she’ll brandish her pencil like a knife.” The charmingly honest “Fan Club” has Einhorn admitting, “I’m joining a fan club/ And I’m not ashamed,” before confessing, “I wish I could sound the same.” Meanwhile, singer/cellist Ellen O’Hayer adds hew sweet vocals on the aforementioned cute songs “Would You Still Love Me if I Was in a Knife Fight?”, “I Say the Stupidest Things Sometimes”.
It’s the band’s second songwriter, however, who proves to be their greatest asset. Singer/guitarist Matthew “Boston” Kerstein possesses a terrific, ragged, punk-like voice, not to mention some great lyric writing skill, as his songs range from the beautifully tender (the romantic “All the Heart You Wear on Your Sleeve”), to surprisingly energetic and passionate. Kerstein and O’Hayer pull off an absolutely gorgeous duet on “Bet You Never Thought it Would Be Like This”, the pair trading verses, O’Hayer’s gentle voice contrasting with Kerstein’s drunken howl, bringing to mind the 1995 duet “Haunted”, by Shane MacGowan and Sinead O’Connor. Kerstein’s voice takes on a bit of a Joe Strummer quality on the propulsive “She Just Wants to Move” and the melancholy, Neil Young style combination of acoustic guitar and harmonica on “Mother’s Son” works well with his touching, confessional style lyrics. The darkly tinged “Along the Way”, which features his best lines, “I’m naïve but I think we are what we set out to find/ But no one set out to be a drunken driver/ No one set out to be an unwed mother/ No one set out to be a lying lover/ We just pick it up along the way.”
Despite the large number of cookie cutter orch-pop songs, there’s a surprising amount of musical depth on several tracks. “Tear Down the Opera House” is a raucous, punk-fueled, Clash style tune, the poppy “I Know a Girl” features Gospel vocals, and “Topsy Turvy” employs a drum machine, adding a light electronic touch. It’s moments like these, as well as Kerstein’s songwriting skill, that makes I Bet You Say That to All the Boys marginally pleasant, and you get the feeling that this whole Belle and Sebastian obsession, which borders dangerously on overkill, will be merely a stepping stone towards a sound The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir can call their own.