Tuesday, 4 August 2009
God Help the Girl
God Help the Girl - God Help the Girl
released 22 June 2009 on Rough Trade
There’s a danger in this opening paragraph of wringing the very meaning out of the word “eponymous,” so it’s probably best to start from the beginning. God Help the Girl is the name of a film written by Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian, due out next year. For the accompanying songs - one of which is called God Help the Girl - Murdoch has created a group called God Help the Girl and their soundtrack is entitled God Help the Girl. So, just to make things clear, on God Help the Girl by God Help the Girl (the soundtrack to God Help the Girl), there’s a song called God Help the Girl. Got it? Good.
The film is a musical, which will probably come as a surprise to those who still see Belle and Sebastian as the fey, publicity-shy indie kids of the 1990s, but less of a shock for those who have followed their career trajectory more closely. The most obvious case in point is Act of the Apostle II from Belle and Sebastian’s last album, 2006’s The Life Pursuit; a song so jaunty and packed with narrative, it sounded like an off-cut from Bugsy Malone. The song is back on God Help the Girl in a different guise (and, somewhat confusingly, simply titled Act of the Apostle) and if possible, it’s got even more swing in its step.
Stuart Murdoch’s lyrics have always been sexually ambiguous (see the harrowing The Chalet Lines from the under-appreciated Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant), so it seems perfectly natural that God Help the Girl makes use of five different female vocalists. Most simply act as a mouthpiece for Murdoch’s tales of regret and the frustration of the mundane, yet one newcomer completely steals the show.
Unless you’re particularly au fait with the notoriously prolific and slightly incestuous Glasgow indie scene, chances are you won’t know an awful lot about Catherine Ireton of up-and-coming and really rather good duo Go Away Birds. But know her you should; her cut-glass accent and perfect pronunciation coupled with a honey-sweet voice possibly shouldn’t work in theory, but in practice it’s daringly alluring and altogether sexy. The nearest soundalike is probably Sophie Ellis-Bextor but that can’t help but come across as damning with faint praise (hey, theaudience were a good band, right?), Ireton outshines everybody here, including Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy who crops up (with Ireton) on Perfection as a Hipster.
God Help the Girl is based around Ireton’s distinctive voice and wonderful, shiver-inducing major to minor chord changes, which lead to its particular sound. Whereas Stuart Murdoch’s last foray into soundtracks (Belle and Sebastian’s hit-and-miss Storytelling) was too piecemeal, God Help the Girl really feels like a proper album with a running theme. It’s evocative of sassy girl groups of the Motown era and everything drips with sumptuous string arrangements. It’s a similar trick to that pulled off by The Last Shadow Puppets on The Age of the Understatement but with a much more perky attitude.
God Help the Girl is at its best when exhibiting what has become something of a Belle and Sebastian trademark: the soaring, sunny melody juxtaposed with the unexpected lyric. Ireton excels as she floats up towards the chorus on the title track (“If he gave me a sign, I’d think about it for a week, I’d build it up and then I’d turn him down”) and the marriage of cymbals, bells and bombast with the everyday on Musician, Please Take Heed is a joy to behold (“I lost a lot of weight, I think it’s down to leaving meat out of my diet, as a rule I won’t buy it ‘cos it’s cruel”).
God Help the Girl demonstrates that Murdoch is part of a great male-female partnership for the first time since Isobel Campbell left Belle and Sebastian seven years ago. In fact, if God Help the Girl featured solely Murdoch/Ireton collaborations, it could be argued that it’s the best album that Murdoch has put his name to since The Boy with the Arab Strap, over a decade ago. However, that isn’t the case; the aforementioned Neil Hannon sounds curiously out of place popping up halfway through the record and the remaining female contingent do little to engage or uplift. As well as those - albeit minor - complaints, the less said about the frankly horrible lift-Muzak of A United Theory, the better.
All of these things are forgivable, but what really threatens to put a downer on an otherwise stellar record is the teeth-grindingly awful version of Belle and Sebastian’s biggest hit single, Funny Little Frog. Whereas the original (again, from The Life Pursuit) was full of warmth and wit, the 2009 update is devoid of anything approaching quality. Vocalist Brittany Stallings (sorry to attack someone whose presence on the album is due to winning a competition) seems to think she’s Joss Stone and her vapid, melismatic warbling are as synthetic as a nylon pullover. Even the band sound as if they’re going through the motions like they’re contractually obliged and the fact Stallings doesn’t even attempt the charming non-rhyme of “know it” with “throat” would be tantamount to treason in a fair society (ok, maybe that’s a bit of an extreme reaction, but it really is buttock-clenchingly wretched though).
For anyone after the next Belle and Sebastian album, God Help the Girl ticks the boxes whilst simultaneously asking more questions than it answers. Save for a handful of forgettable excursions into tampering with a perfectly good formula, it’s a very well-written, cohesive collection of songs. Its main legacy may turn out to be, however, that a star has been discovered and a girl who may not need help from anyone, omnipotent deity or otherwise.