Score One For The Lass: ‘God Help The Girl’
Sheer girly charm appears to be the prime mover behind Belle and Sebastian poobah Stuart Murdoch’s latest project, God Help the Girl (Matador). The actual shooting of the cinematic musical that this music is tethered to is off in the future, but why not enjoy this delightful score right here in the now?
Out for a run around the time of Belle and Sebastian’s 2004 long-player, Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Murdoch heard a tune in his noggin that seemed much more suited for female voices and strings rather than Belle and Sebastian and his own frail falsetto. Songs for particular characters started to emerge, and Murdoch began to put aside those numbers for the narrative rapidly taking shape. An audition for lady singers around Murdoch’s native Glasgow, Scotland, yielded the album’s focal voice: Catherine Ireton, a friend of a friend who also appeared on the sleeve of B&S’s “White Collar Boy” single. Other singers like Brittany Stallings and Dina Bankole were unearthed during a competition on IMeem -- hopefuls could add their vocals to two demos posted on the social networking site -- though more well-known artists like Asya of Smoosh and Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy also threw their lot in with Murdoch’s endeavor.
The result is almost all sweetness, with just a wee dab of contrivance. Curiously “Pretty Eve in the Tub,” with Murdoch’s own trademark twee vocal, stands out as a mite precious. Still, tracks like “Funny Little Frog” (the B&S rendition went to no. 10 on the UK charts in ‘06) and its memorably spunky, retro-soul vocal by Stallings pop. This tune wouldn’t be out of place among those by latter-day Jam or early Style Council -- its sprightly strings and woodwinds are interwoven with a gently spry rhythm section to delicious optimism.
Murdoch redeems himself with the girl-and-dog-and-boy-meet-cute ditty, “If You Could Speak,” which comes complete with whistling, sparse acoustic and electric guitar, and a kick-up-your-heels carefreeness. Witty offerings like “Perfection as a Hipster” will please B&S fans looking for those well-placed barbed rejoinders. Even tracks like “Musician, Please Take Heed,” which get somewhat swamped by overwhelming and stilted orchestral arrangements, startle with the occasional zinger like, “I’ve lost a lot of weight / I think it’s down to / Leaving meat out of my diet as a rule / I won’t buy it ‘cause it’s cruel.”
The album seems to shake off its self-consciousness as it progresses through the lilting “Come Monday Night” and “I Just Want Your Jeans.” By time the down-low finale “A Down and Dusky Blonde” enters the picture and all the girls, god help ‘em, join together in song, Murdoch appears to have found his sense of balance. And a classic girl pop fan comes away thinking God Help the Girl an intriguing and often seductive experiment, sure to intrigue fans of Britpop and orchestral indie ala Okkervil River, the Decemberists, and Arcade Fire, though marred by some stilted, restrained performances by the hired hands in the pit. God help Murdoch and guide him in switching out the more stultified session players so as to liven up his final filmic fantasy.