Belle and Sebastian
Matador/Jeepster Recordings, 2002
Even the most promising unions can wind up disastrously, like David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen; Conan and Andy; and even Goober Grape, a premixed jar of grape jelly and peanut butter that inexplicably still graces the shelves of supermarkets around the country. The combination of two complementary elements does not always yield a superior final product, to be sure.
The Scottish ensemble Belle and Sebastian as well as director Todd Solondz all probably found this out when they decided to work together on the film, Storytelling. A pairing of Solondz, the crafty filmmaker responsible for Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, with Belle and Sebastian, the coolly ironic, incredibly hip band (with album titles like If You’re Feeling Sinister and Boy With the Arab Strap) seemed like a tasty match. But like Goober Grape, the results may leave you disappointed.
If you saw Storytelling this past spring, you were probably a little surprised to find that if you reached for a handful of popcorn, you missed the few seconds of the Belle and Sebastian soundtrack. Apparently, the band was just as shocked as you were. After they prepared a few songs, Solondz didn’t approve most of them. “What ended up being right for the movie amounted to about six minutes of music,” huffs trumpeter Mick Cook. The assorted left-overs have now ended up on their latest LP, which contains a mere 35 minutes of music.
It’s not even all music. The LP intertwines a disjointed collection of instrumentals, random screen dialogue, and songs inspired by the film. Although the instrumentals are beautifully constructed (especially “Consuelo Leaving,” “Night Walk,” and “Fiction Reprise”), the interjections of screen dialogue seem pointless. Except for the harsh diatribe delivered in “Dialogue: Mandingo Cliché,” which is incongruously overlaid with the sweet cooing of singer Isobel Campbell, the sound bites on Storytelling don’t evoke memorable scenes in the film (the Pulp Fiction soundtrack is a rare example of where this technique can succeed).
The brightest spots on Storytelling are the six complete songs with biting lyrics—delivered with the trademark brass and guitar festival characteristic of Belle and Sebastian. The head-bobbing “Scooby Driver” is a fantastic, upbeat tune that drives listeners to hyperactivity, while the lyrics of the heartbreakingly slow “I Don’t Want To Play Football” steer them to fits of laughter. It is told from the perspective of a kid probably more suited to the chess club than a sports team, a tiny, exasperated voice who professes:
I don’t understand the thrill of running, catching, throwing/Taking orders from a moron/Grabbing sweaty crotches/Getting hit by people I don’t know.
As to be expected, not all of Belle and Sebastian’s lyrics are harmless and fun. The title song is a criticism of artists—and perhaps screenwriters and directors in particular—who weave sordid tales. “If you’re a storyteller you might think you’re without responsibility/ And you can lead your characters anywhere you want/ You have immunity/ Have you considered the way/ People might react to all the things that your characters say?” asks the band. This question seems especially pointed at Solondz, whose notorious films depicting child molestation, perversion, mental cruelty—and in this particular film, the date rape of a white student by a black professor—have long stirred controversy. Similarly, the band’s “Big John Shaft” takes a harsh looks at that specific experience from a black actor’s perspective, speculating how he may react to portraying a racial stereotype in the film.
Perhaps Solondz thus got more than he bargained for in this collaboration, but it’s obvious that the experience wasn’t entirely pleasant for the band, either (as the liner notes convey). What remains is a disappointing album with scattered delights. Belle and Sebastian lovers, like this reviewer, will wish that such a promising story had a happier ending.
Sandra Nygaard is a Brooklyn-based writer.