Belle and Sebastian

The best pop groups want to change the world. They want to leave an imprint that no one forgets, to do more than check out as a minor statistic in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles. They want to change the world of pop, and to engage with the politics of pop. Belle & Sebastian have re-invented the pop festival; they signed to a tiny independent label but still beat Steps to a BRIT, before sweeping into the Top 40, then the Top 20. They’ve brought their lost sixties heroine, Evie Sands, over to play a show in Glasgow. They’ve sold out a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. And, in 2014, they cut an album – their ninth – called Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, that blends electro-glide, baroque balladry, and giant-sized Europop hooks. They deserve several accolades, each of which are rare for any band in 2017 – Belle & Sebastian are unique, unpredictable, and fiercely loved.

Part of their appeal is that Belle and Sebastian have always given the impression of being completely unaware that they are even famous. Emerging in the late nineties, they appeared to be both press and camera-shy, but also entirely self-contained; they seemed to have a secret, something built around books and films, and yet were happy to share the love, stopping just short of writing individual songs for their fans. And their fans, naturally, became obsessive, formed their own bands, started their own loosely affiliated clubs, radio shows and websites. A secret gang – who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?
But then again if you’re a band who works with Trevor Horn, Carey Mulligan and Norah Jones, you’re probably not content to lurk in the tiny shadow offered by a seven-inch single on Postcard. And if you end up on the soundtrack to Adam Curtis’s The Power Of Nightmares, or Todd Solondz’s Storytelling, as well as Juno, then there’s going to be more than a little grit and grain to your music than adjectives like “shy” and “fragile” might suggest.

They have worked with outside producers ever since Trevor Horn helmed Dear Catastrophe Waitress in 2003, plumping up their sound, pumping it full of light and air, and getting ‘Step Into My Office Baby’ unlikely but welcome repeated plays from Ken Bruce on BBC Radio 2. This suggested a sharp step away from the tape-swapping, pen pal world they had been thought to inhabit (of course they never had, not really). Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air, Phoenix) was hired for The Life Pursuit (2006) and Write About Love (2010). The latest album was recorded in Atlanta with Ben Allen (Deerhunter, Washed Out, CeeLo Green and Animal Collective) who convinced them to leave things more open-ended, less thoroughly thought-out in advance, leaving the producer and the musicians more space to be spontaneous. The result is playful, super-melodic, with lyrical nods to both their past and an optimistic future, and joyful jumps into new musical territories.

Belle & Sebastian have stood as something different right from the beginning. Let’s have a quick poke around the previous eighteen years. Debut album Tigermilk (1996) was the product of a Stow College music business class that drummer Richard Colburn was taking; just 1,000 vinyl copies were pressed. In spite of huge major label interest (immortalised on the track Seymour Stein on their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap) they initially signed to the tiny Jeepster label, then later to Rough Trade and now have their first worldwide deal with Matador Records. The key to their appeal was a sense of community. Their self-curated Bowlie festival would evolve into All Tomorrow’s Parties; they became central to a nascent message board culture, and a US loop of labels and fanzines (even writing a song about one, Chickfactor) that adored their music, their stance, and their imagery.

In Britain they famously upset the applecart in 1999 by winning the “Best Newcomers” BRIT award through the votes of their fans, faced accusations of vote rigging, and in the process have got the backs of the tabloids up (sample Daily Record headline: “Belle Boy’s At It Again”). So, clearly, they’ve been doing something right.

Japanese Breakfast

"The title Soft Sounds From Another Planet alludes to the promise of something that may or may not be there. Like a hope in something more. The songs are about human resilience and the strength it takes to claw out of the darkest of spaces.”
Michelle Zauner wrote the debut Japanese Breakfast album in the weeks after her mother died of cancer, thinking she would quit music entirely once it was done. That wasn’t the case. When Psychopomp was released to acclaim in 2016, she was forced to confront her grief. Zauner would find find herself reliving traumatic memories multiple times a day during interviews, trying to remain composed while discussing the most painful experience of her life. Her sophomore album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, is a transmutation of mourning, a reflection that turns back on the cosmos in search of healing.
“I want to be a woman of regimen,” Zauner sings over a burbling synth on the album’s opening track “Diving Woman.” This serves as Zauner’s mission statement: stick to the routine lest you get derailed, don’t cling to the past, don’t descend. In fact, ascend to the stars; Zauner found artistic solace removed from Earth, in outer space and science fiction. “I used the theme as a means to disassociate from trauma,” she explains. “Space used as a place of fantasy.”
And yet, Soft Sounds From Another Planet isn’t a concept album. Over the course of 12 tracks, Zauner explores an expansive thematic universe, a cohesive outpouring of unlike parts structured to create a galaxy of her own design. In the instrumental “Planetary Ambience,” synths communicate the way extraterrestrials might, and on the shapeshifting single “Machinist,” which Zauner has been performing live for over a year now, she details the sci-fi narrative of a woman falling in love with a machine. “It’s pure fiction,” she explains, “But it can map onto real relationships in a relevant way.” The track, which begins with spoken-word ambience, moves into autotune ‘80s pop bliss and ends with a sultry saxophone solo, perfectly marries the experience: there’s a perceptible humanity in mechanical, bodily events.
Within its astral production, much of Soft Sounds From Another Planet stays grounded. “Road Head” is the last chest compression in attempt to resuscitate a doomed relationship, while the penultimate track “This House” is an acoustic dirge that honors Zauner’s chosen family. The baroque pop “Boyish” has a haunting, crystalline clarity that recalls the pathos of a Roy Orbison ballad, while “Body is a Blade” embraces the dark intimacy of Zauner’s Pacific Northwest heroes Elliott Smith and Mount Eerie.
With help from co-producer Craig Hendrix (who also co-produced Little Big League’s debut) and Jorge Elbrecht, (Ariel Pink, Tamaryn) who mixed the album, Zauner recontextualizes her bedroom pop beginnings, expanding and maturing her sound. The sheer massiveness of the big room production on Soft Sounds From Another Planet introduces listeners to a new Japanese Breakfast. Zauner’s familiar, capacious voice will serve as their guide.
“Your body is a blade that moves while your brain is writhing,” she sings. “Knuckled under pain you mourn but your blood is flowing.” There’s discernible pain in the phrasing, Zauner recognizing limitation, a lack of control, but then subverting the feeling, creating her own musical language for confronting trauma. Where Psychopomp introduced the world to Japanese Breakfast, Soft Sounds dives deeper. It builds space where there is none, and suggests that in the face of tragedy, we find ways to keep on living.

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