Belle & Sebastian's songs have always been instantly familiar while simultaneously original and unexpected. Listening to Belle & Sebastian, you have the inexplicable feeling that you have heard these songs somewhere before, filed away with the mothballs of your youth, or that, maybe, you have stumbled upon long-lost tapes of a young Nick Drake being backed by Village Green Preservation Society
-era Kinks under the production of some low-rent Phil Spector. The fact that Belle & Sebastian have arrived at their distinct, anachronistic sound quite naturally and by accident is a large part of their charm. It's not surprising, then, that Belle & Sebastian's fourth full-length record, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant
, has arrived with the band's sincerity intact. What is surprising, however, is the record itself: an eclectic mix of the soulful and the sublime, something of a departure for the band. Unlike their last record, the amazing Boy with the Arab Strap
, the songs here are not instantly recognizable, but more subtle. The hooks don't automatically grab; instead, the songs' intent is to break you down, seeping into your bloodstream and working on you from the inside out like an infection.
The eclectic feel of the record owes itself to the fact that this is, by far, Belle & Sebastian's most "record by committee" affair yet, with songwriting contributions from several different band members and songs that seem to have been built up from simple ideas into lush orchestral pieces with the musical input of the band's many different instrumentalists. While Stuart Murdoch still writes and sings the bulk of the material, he collaborates with bandmates on a number of songs, including the delicately soulful "Don't Leave the Light on Baby," written with keyboardist Chris Geddes. Unfortunately, songs by Belle & Sebastian cofounder and bassist Stuart David are not to be found on Fold Your Hands (he left the band during the recording). However, violinist Sarah Martin contributes her first song with the haunting "Waiting for the Moon to Rise," while cellist Isobel Campbell adds the record's most surprising track, "Beyond the Sunrise," sounding like a lost Leonard Cohen gem with its spare and fragile arrangement. Guitarist Stevie Jackson, who contributed some of the better songs on Arab Strap, manages only one on this outing, but it's one of the best: "The Wrong Girl," a tale of misplaced love juxtaposed against swinging Spector- like strings and horns. By the time the band reaches "Women's Realm," an infectious, life-affirming romp, the record's message, although never spelled out, is clear: Through all the melancholy and solitude and terrible things that could go wrong, life is still worth fighting for. --Paul Ducey