Belle & Sebastian Dear Catastrophe Waitress
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After the near-disaster of forced democracy on Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant and the stultifying holding pattern of the Storytelling soundtrack, where Todd Solondz brought out their worst tendencies, it seemed that Belle & Sebastian were disappearing into their own preciousness, but then something unexpected happened: they returned to form with 2003's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. This was unexpected not just because their last efforts suggested that B&S no longer could produce a consistently engaging work, but because their savior came in the guise of Trevor Horn, the man who successfully helped Yes turn new wave, the man best known for his synth-heavy productions of ABC and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the man who was last heard producing everybody's favorite Russian teen lesbian duo, Tatu. That diverse resumé suggests that Horn knows how to play to a band's strengths, and he certainly helps Belle & Sebastian regain their focus and vision, turning Dear Catastrophe Waitress into one of the group's best albums. One of the reasons that album works so well is that the notion that the band has no leader has been discarded, with Stuart Murdoch thankfully serving as the lead singer and songwriter throughout the record. Murdoch's songs are firmly within the patented Belle & Sebastian style, and while it may be true that he's not stretching himself much as a writer, that doesn't matter because he sounds assured and confident, turning out a set of songs that are finely crafted and tuneful. It's among his catchiest work, if not quite his cleverest, since the words occasionally offer an overdose of whimsy that leads to queasiness. And that's where Horn comes in -- by keeping the focus on the tunes and subtly varying the production, he's made Dear Catastrophe Waitress the richest musical offering yet from Belle & Sebastian. If it doesn't quite have the timeless feel of If You're Feeling Sinister, so be it, since this is their first record since that defining album to offer a similarly rich listen, and that's quite a comeback for a band that only an album ago seemed to peak too early.