In 2003, Belle and Sebastian released Dear Catastrophe Waitress, a return to form after the gorgeous mess that was Fold Your Hands Child You Walk Like a Peasant. Whereas previous albums were somewhat lo-fi affairs, Waitress was glitzy ("I'm a Cuckoo"), smooth ("If She Wants Me") and trippy ("Stay Loose"). While some fans were horrified, I enjoyed the album immensely. Now the group has released the follow-up: The Life Pursuit.
The album continues the adventures in production that was a hallmark of Waitress. Tracks like "Another Sunny Day" and the single "Funny Little Frog" wouldn't be out of place on that album, with their infectious sing-along choruses. Interestingly enough, track five, "Dress Up in You," which invokes memories of "Fox in the Snow," would fit nicely on the seminal If You're Feeling Sinister, their second album, which introduced them to the world-at-large. There's an unspoken rule that guitarist Stevie Jackson has one track to himself on each album, and here he clocks in with "To Be Myself Completely." Sadly, violinist Sarah Martin doesn't do lead vocals on any track.
I want to make it clear that The Life Purusit isn't Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Part II. Far from it. The band stretches in several new directions, and yet manages to keep a consistent vibe throughout the album. Track three, "White Collar Boy," features a killer synth line, which the band hasn't employed to this effect since "Sleep the Clock Around off" The Boy With the Arab Strap. The superb "The Blues are Still Blue" ventures into glam-rock territory, a vein the group has tapped briefly a few times before, but never to the extent found here. Ethereal and ambient were words used to describe the group's early efforts, and this album proves they can still make this work for them, in tracks like the aforementioned "Dress Up in You" as well as "Act of the Apostle II."
That's not to say that every track on The Life Pursuit is a keeper. "Sukie in the Graveyard" and "We are the Sleepyheads" really accomplish nothing, and "Mornington Crescent" leaves a bit to be desired.
If you decide to purchase this album, and you should, be sure to pick up the special edition, as it comes with a DVD featuring live performances of six of the album's tracks. Recorded at the BBC, these six songs offer fans a tantalizing glimpse of what is to come on the forthcoming tour. Watching this DVD makes me somewhat regret my decision to sit this tour out. Yet, after seeing the band twice, the DVD confirmed what I already knew: that Belle and Sebastian, in addition to being a great studio band, also puts on a scorching live show. The liner notes are pretty nifty, too; usually containing ramblings from band members, this time out, they feature some of the best questions posed to the band on their Internet forum.
I've been following the career of Belle and Sebastian for seven years now, and in that time I've watched them evolve from a low-key collective into arguably the world's most popular indie band. The Life Pursuit is another step in that evolution, and serves as a reminder that Belle and Sebastian still matter.
Don't tell Shaun Corley what he can't do!