Graded on a Curve:
Belle and Sebastian,
Girls in Peacetime
Want to Dance

Evolution’s a bitch. Sure, it has its good points–without it, we’d still be walking around with tails. But in the case of music–where evolution is the norm–it cuts both ways. Some bands get better as they grow and change; others, and I put Scotland’s Belle and Sebastian in this category, sacrifice the very qualities that made them special in the first place.

On 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister and 1998’s The Boy with the Arab Strap, Belle and Sebastian went the twee indie pop route, and came across as young, charming, and achingly naive (a clever ruse.) But come 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress the band was buffing up its low-fi sound, and by 2014’s Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance they’d begun to explore dance music. I don’t begrudge them their transformation–evolution is evolution–but they left anti-Darwinists like yours truly behind, with no way to scratch our twee itch.

Don’t get me wrong. The dance on music on Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance succeeds. And Belle and Sebastian haven’t completely abandoned their roots. Indeed, half of the LP’s songs harken back to their early days, albeit dressed in contemporary couture. Standouts in the back-to-their-roots category include “Ever Had a Little Faith?” and opening track “Nobody’s Empire,” the latter of which bears eerie echoes of Al Stewart’s “Year of the Cat.” Other excellent throwbacks include “Allie” and “Today (This Army’s for Peace),” a slow and lovely lullaby that demonstrates Belle and Sebastian haven’t lost the wistful melodic touch.

“The Everlasting Muse” is a slinky jazz number complete with stand-up bass that pivots to what sounds to me like a take on Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” (which the band may or may not be acknowledging with the line about stealing a melody).“The Book of You” is a hybrid, an early period Belle and Sebastian song gussied-up with booming bass, synth-chatter and some fuzzed-out electric guitar.

The remaining six songs are invitations to dance. Belle and Sebastian make their intentions clear with “The Party Line,” a purebred disco number with throbbing bass and cool guitar riff. “Jump to the beat of the party line,” sings Stuart Murdoch, “standing on the black and white tiles.” “The Power of Three” is more lush, thanks in large part to Sarah Martin’s breathy vocals. “Enter Sylvia Plath” also gets the full disco treatment, and would undoubtably have horrified poor Sylvia. Other dance numbers include “Perfect Couples” with Stevie Jackson on vocals and “Play for Today,” which features Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls.

Popular music has never been a zero sum, evolve-or-die dichotomy–just look at Chuck Berry. Still, Belle and Sebastian have every right to go to the disco if they want, or start playing Sun Ra space jazz for that matter. I enjoy their dance material–it’s top notch stuff. Still, I’ll always prefer such low-fi songs as “Like Dylan in the Movies” and “Modern Rock Song.” Their unique, iconic music captured the spirit of being young, precociously sophisticated and alive as much as any band ever has. So I probably won’t be accompanying Belle and Sebastian onto the dance floor. My loss perhaps.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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