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Looper and the Gentle Waves

By Patrick Bryant

JULY 19, 1999:  One of 1998's distinctive pleasures was The Boy with the Arab Strap (Matador), the third release by the crafty Scottish chamber-folk outfit Belle and Sebastian. The album packaged book-smart, slightly ornate gentle pop songs that artfully reflected the finest vibrant British folk pop, wedding knowing lyrics to insouciant melodies. The frail orchestrations and quixotic instrumentation distinguished it from a mere recombinant of its influences, which range from Nick Drake to the Smiths. The music's innocence and peppermints captured the poignancy of childhood playground gaiety -- as Arab Strap's liner notes helpfully point out, B&S nicked their name from a popular UK TV show for tykes. And thanks to overwhelming support from critics, who voted Arab Strap #13 in the Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, the disc helped the band parlay Belle's humble origins as a college marketing-class project into a modest indie-rock career.

A transient collective of seven (more or less, depending on who you ask) Glasgow artisans, Belle and Sebastian have a more-the-merrier quiet little-big-band sound akin to that of Nashville's Lambchop or Chicago's late lamented Shrimpboat. Arab Strap gets its strongest imprint from the band's de facto frontperson and singer, Stuart Murdoch, whose sensitive mien recalls Nick Drake, the patron saint of tortured souls. Still, two indispensable ingredients on Arab Strap were Isobel Campbell's vocal on "Is It Wicked Not To Care?" and Stuart David's electronica-spoken-word scat "A Spaceboy Dream," if only because they diversified the band's appeal beyond Murdoch's sly and shy wordplay. And it seems Campbell and David have decided to strike while Murdoch's irony is still hot, each with a side-project solo album: Campbell's homonymous debut from her ensemble the Gentle Waves, and David's Up a Tree (Sub Pop), by his Looper, who perform this Tuesday at the Middle East. (This summer has also seen the re-release of Belle and Sebastian's hard-to-find vinyl-only debut, Tigermilk, in the US on Matador.)

Given B&S's modest popularity outside of critical circles, it's doubtful the two side shows are trying to lo-fi their way to the bank -- Campbell and David are just taking the opportunity to expand on the ideas present in their Arab Strap contributions. Besides, both albums are mixed efforts. Fans will cherish the opportunity to explore further the creative and psychological dynamics of the famously reclusive outfit, but neither Campbell nor David is likely to win over new converts.

Looper's Up a Tree is a longer follow-up to David's Arab Strap cameo, which inventively placed his unvarnished chatter against samples of funky drums, horny horns, and stray guitar before shifting into retro-nuevo Expresso Bongo jive. "A Spaceboy Dream" served as a healthy, if necessary, diversion from Murdoch's narcoleptic demeanor. In contrast to B&S's polished ensemble, Up a Tree is a stripped-down, self-produced mix of quirky beats and bricolage. The eccentric bouillon includes harmonica, turntable scratches, murky Beatlesy keyboards, samples, and guitar sounds alternating between imitation wakka-wakka funk and Tom Verlaine lyricism. The indecipherable spoken-word bits on "Festival '95" and "Impossible Things #2" recall the impenetrable scat of Thee Headcoats' Billy Childish and the Fall's paranoid android Mark E. Smith. (In this family affair, David's wife, Karn, and brother, Ronnie Black, are collaborators.) But Looper disprove the cliché that electronic music is the new punk. Up a Tree's melodica, painfully self-taught musicianship, homemade production, and syncopated rhythms make it the new post-punk. In other words, Looper party like it's 1979 on what amounts to the best Britpop side project since Blur's Graham Coxon unleashed his basement tapes.

Even without Murdoch's vocals, The Gentle Waves is like a secret, albeit anemic, Belle and Sebastian album, especially since most of the parent band guest-star. Campbell represents Belle's confectionery side with a style, at times wincing, that's reminiscent of the femme bop of Marianne Faithfull, Lulu, and other mid-'60s English marionettes. She's as posey as she wants to be. "Evensong," with its peppy flute solos and horns, sounds like a campy, shagadelic outtake from HR Pufnstuff. "Renew and Restore" is virtually indistinguishable from Belle -- Campbell even mirrors Murdoch's curious vocal intonations. Like a Ringo Starr solo album, Gentle Waves is full of zest and poise, but it's largely bereft of the soul or memorable tunes that set Arab Strap apart.


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