Tuesday, June 23, 2009

God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl

Album Reviews
Pitchfork
June 23, 2009
Link
7.5

God Help the Girl 











"Girl singer needed for autumnal recording project," the ad in the paper said. "Autumnal," of course, being the Queen's-- and the critics'-- preferred English for, uh, "fall-like." You know that song where, when people talk about the fall, Jens Lekman thinks they're talking about Mark E. Smith? Stuart Murdoch probably thinks they're talking about the Garden of Eden.

After all, the main character in God Help the Girl-- a new album of songs from the Belle and Sebastian singer/songwriter's planned musical-film project-- is called Eve. She's voiced angelically by Catherine Ireton, cover girl for the Scottish septet's "White Collar Boy" single and one half of a sleepy acoustic pop duo called the Go Away Birds. Ireton is one of nine singers (incuding the Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon) joining members of Belle and Sebastian for the recording, and her Irish-Zooey-Deschanel-next-door vocals have ended up gracing 10 of the set's 14 songs. But not until after an internet-wide sing-off. "The competition was me showing a startling lack of faith in what was right in front of me, but I had to see what was out there," Murdoch recently told London's Guardian.

From the humble school project that became 1996 debut Tigermilk to the professional pop majesty of The Life Pursuit a decade later, the Scottish pop savant's work has been almost one leap of faith after another. Murdoch lands on solid ground again with God Help the Girl, which has catchy, jangling girl-group ditties aplenty, a little theatrical flourish thanks to Belle and Sebastian trumpeter Mick Cooke's orchestral arrangements, and at least one typically Murdoch-esque character, Eve. The imagery is always vivid, even when the plot isn't. From what I can tell, Ireton's bookish ingenue gives herself to the Holy Trinity: sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. God love 'er.

Always one for evocative character sketches, Murdoch clearly relishes his role as demiurge of God Help the Girl's self-contained universe. First single "Come Monday Night" is a good preview, with the wispy lilt of early Camera Obscura and a way of lingering on "the gray of ordinariness" long enough to show how it's lined with silvery subtleties. Like, that restless first evening between a disappointing weekend and another drab workday. The way sleep leaves a face "crumpled and creased." And the full rundown of Eve obsessing over some guy she likes ("Please stop me there, I'm even boring myself!"). At times, Murdoch's realistically elaborate fiction points to its own phoniness. "Life could be musical comedy," suggests "Hiding Neath My Umbrella", a bittersweet Murdoch-Ireton duet over waltzing piano and swelling strings.

God Help the Girl opens with a delicate new version of The Life Pursuit centerpiece "Act of the Apostle II". Switched from "senior year" to "senior ward," and re-titled simply "Act of the Apostle", the song also drops its last verse-- making the whole thing more prologue-like-- and gains a bit of Andrews Sisters swing. For all the specifics about a sick narrator and fighting parents, "Act of the Apostle" is still essentially a pop kid's update of the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll": "My Damascan road's my transistor radio." Her life was saved by girl groups.

Or was it? The nuance-rich Murdoch is characteristically coy when it comes to certain details. He's mentioned musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar or the original Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory film as inspirations; my fellow 1980s babies may remember Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act, where all those awesome Motown songs turned out to make real nice hymns if you did the ol' Christian rock trick and replaced "him" with "Him". So The Life Pursuit's "Funny Little Frog", sung here by Internet contest winner Brittany Stallings, might not work as a soul song, but just think: a soul song. About someone who is everywhere, but you don't think of in a physical way. Someone you might go and visit on rainy Sundays.

"She was into S&M and Bible studies," Murdoch once sang. Eve's first romantic experience is creepy, Murdoch offering to rub and scrub her during the ironically formal strings and piano of "Pretty Eve in the Tub". No wonder she winds up in the arms of Hannon's hammy rake on "Perfection as a Hipster", asking for haircare tips even as she wastes away from lack of nutrition. Asya, of Seattle teen keyboard-drums trio Smoosh, may have an even more girlish voice than Ireton's, but on "I Just Want Your Jeans", she's looking for boys to make her "go, 'Ouch!'"-- heck, she's "open to dark surprises." And somewhere in there I just skipped a couple of totally skippable instrumentals.

The last two songs are among the album's most inspired. "I'll Have to Dance With Cassie" suggests Eve has returned to the church of rock'n'roll; now that she knows her "dream boy" doesn't exist, she's shimmying with a girl friend like they're a pair of boxing kangaroos. On closing number "A Down and Dusky Blonde", having "fried" her head-- another double entendre?-- Eve joins an entire sisterhood of female singers. She hasn't been getting her apple a day, so a doctor counsels, "A woman does not live by the printed word/ Forgive yourself, and eat." How about it, Eve?

"I need a friend and I choose you," the final song continues, with a vow to "forget the kiss and feel." Hmm. God Help the Girl is a spirited expansion of some of Murdoch's best ideas, but until the film finishes shooting-- set to start next year-- we'll probably just have wild-ass guesses like mine as to the real story. "I feel like I have God for a pal because no one else would have me," Murdoch writes in an online journal entry. "Maybe that's the basis for a lot of religion. He's the invisible friend that it's OK to have as an adult." Tell you this much, He's in the details.

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Press Mentions

"Goes over the top and stays there to very nice effect."
-- David Carr, The New York Times

"I wasn't fully convinced. But I was interested."
-- Rob Walker, The New York Times

"...as Marc Hogan wrote in Spin..."
-- Maureen Dowd, The New York Times

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